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Learning to buckle up auto-matically in Bonn - because now it's the law

My reflexes are improving. When I drove to the local shop to buy the morning newspapers, I remembered to buckle up after eight minutes. When I drove off after leaving my Monitor article at Reuters, I guiltily grabbed for the seat belt after four minutes. When I left my interview at the International Committee for Migration, I remembered after three minutes.

And so far no policeman has caught me in my initial forgetfulness.

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On this first day (Aug. 1) of obligatory seat-belt use I find I have also begun counting surreptitiously how many of my fellow drivers are securely pinned to their seats. Most of them are, actually.

And it's more or less voluntary. In fact, the 40 mark fine ($14, equivalent to the fine for riding on public transportation without a valid ticket, or four times the normal parking ticket) isn't really in force during the August grace period.

Warnings are to be issued in most states, but sinners won't have to reach into their pockets until September (except in Bremen, Baden-Wurttemberg, and Rhineland-Pfalz).

This grace period is not at all to the liking of Transport Minister Werner Dollinger. Having persuaded the Bundestag and Bundesrat to pass the new law in rare unanimity, Dr. Dollinger wants it to be impressed on people immediately, especially in cities where he says the ''seat-belt behavior'' has been ''extremely fully unsatisfactory.''

There are, of course, a few exemptions. And this being Germany, they are, of course, spelled out thoroughly. Taxi drivers and drivers of rented cars are the most surprising exceptions.

More understandable are drivers who are proceeding at pedestrian speed, backwards, or are looking for an empty spot on a large parking lot.

Also understandably, those who are less than 1.5 meters tall (just under 5 feet) are excused, or those whose seat belts are anchored so high in the chassis that their protective effect is ''called into question.''

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There's one catch, though. To qualify as an exception, you need written permission. The cop on the corner, besides catching speeders and terrorists (and seat-belt-less drivers), will also have the duty to certify the uncinched.

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