DEERFIELD, Wis. (AP) -- The car was racing down a country road at speeds well over 100 mph, even though the cop who'd been chasing it had given up. So when the young passengers saw the "T" in the road ahead, they knew there was no way driver Matt Hotmann could stop or make the turn.
Passenger Kyle Smith uttered a swear word. In the back seat, Mary Reinhart squeezed her friend Jeremy Budahn's hand and told him she loved him. "I love you, too, sweety," he said.
Then Reinhart -- knowing that a night of partying with a few friends was about to take a tragic turn -- made a last-minute decision that probably saved her life: "I clicked my seat belt and covered my face." She heard the sound of cracking plastic and shattering glass as the car rolled several times into a frozen farm field.
Budahn and Hotmann, who was her boyfriend, died instantly and Smith a few hours later in the hospital. All three were not wearing seat belts and suffered extensive head injuries when they were thrown from the car. Meanwhile, 17-year-old Reinhart walked away from the December accident with bruises on her hands, a few scratches and a black eye.
Motor vehicle crashes remain the nation's leading cause of death for 15- to 20-year olds and in many cases, experts say, seat belts could have made a difference.
Of the 5,341 teens killed in crashes in 2001, two-thirds were not wearing seat belts, according to the most recent statistics available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"It's such a waste," Reinhart says as she sits in her family's home a few miles east of Madison, clutching a small urn that holds some of Hotmann's ashes. "So many people could be saved."
With the help of tougher seat belt laws and young accident survivors such as Reinhart, that message appears to be getting through to some.
Overall, about three-quarters of Americans say they wear seat belts, according to NHTSA surveys. Among those ages 16 to 24, 69 percent say they wear their seat belts -- an improvement over years past.
But experts say those numbers are still not good enough. And some wonder how many young people, even if they say they're wearing seat belts, are doing so regularly.
"When kids are very young, their parents faithfully put them in car seats -- and as they get older, their parents buckle them up," says Kathy Swanson, chairwoman of the Governors Highway Safety Association and head of Minnesota's traffic safety program. "But when these kids hit 15, many stop wearing seat belts."
A classroom survey released earlier this year by car maker Volkswagen found that about a third of high school students deemed seat belt use "uncool."
Another 30 percent said belts were uncomfortable or would wrinkle their clothing, while 20 percent said they thought seat belts were unnecessary on short trips. And 18 percent said a feeling of invincibility -- "nothing will happen to me" -- stopped them from regularly buckling up. The survey had a margin of error of 5 percentage points.
Reinhart -- who regularly shows other teens photos of the crumpled car she was in, and also talks about the dangers of drinking and driving -- has heard it all.
"Even my friends don't listen," she says. "It's hard to get it across."
In May, she testified in support of a Wisconsin bill that would allow police to stop someone for not wearing a seat belt. (Currently, as is the case in many states, officers can only hand out seat belt fines to someone they've already pulled over for another offense.) The bill also would raise the seat belt fine from $10 to $25 for a first-time offense.
California was among the first states to impose tougher laws like the ones Wisconsin is considering. Now seat belt use there is in the 90 percent range, among the best in the country.
Sheila Sarkar, a San Diego State University professor who is director of the California Institute of Transportation Safety, attributes the heightened use of seat belts in her state to the public's fear of getting a ticket.
Now some other states are following suit, and spreading the word with "Click It or Ticket" campaigns.
But in Idaho, 18-year-old Caloub Huttash thinks the seat belt fine -- recently upped from $5 to $10 -- is still laughable. "That's not going to do it," says Huttash, an accident survivor himself.
He wasn't wearing a seat belt when he crashed two years ago while speeding home to meet a midnight curfew. He was thrown from the car, broke his back in two places and had to have surgery to repair his left ear, which was nearly torn off.
"Most physicians would tell you I'm a walking miracle," says Huttash, who is now lobbying for tougher laws in his state.
Others are focussing on the classroom. Volkswagen and education publisher Scholastic are among those who've created seat belt curriculum. They also co-sponsored a contest asking high school students to create seat belt public service announcements that will air on MTV.
Erin Cosens, a recent graduate of Henry Ford II High School in Sterling Heights, Mich., was among three finalists nationwide. Her public service announcement features a girl disappearing as a boy reaches out to touch her cheek. An empty seat belt then falls to the ground where she was standing.
The ad ends with a warning: "If you think seat belts don't affect you, think again."
On the Net:
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/