Four miles out of Frederick, as U.S. Rte. 15 winds north toward Gettysburg, a large sign on a hillside outside a cemetery warns travelers that they are "about to enter one of the most dangerous highways in the nation," one that has claimed 37 lives since 1976.
Some of the casualties of this roadway are buried at Resthaven Memorial Gardens. The cemetery operator, who posted the sign, is Richard Francis Cody, 50, of Frederick. He says some of the victims of Rte. 15 were children, while others were tourists just passing through.
"Every time I look down this road, I get the chilling sensation that maybe the next victim might be me. Now, wouldn't that be ironic?" Cody said.
People who live near the road say most of the accidents have occurred on a curving, 3.8-mile stretch between Resthaven and Thurmont, where intersections are obstructed from view by trees and mountains.
Cody had the sign made two years ago, after two 16-year-old girls from Montgomery County and a 33-year-old Walkersville woman were killed in separate accidents. State highway administration officials told Cody at the time that the sign was an eyesore and that it must come down. But after Gov. Harry Hughes vetoed a bill that would have paid for road improvements, Cody vowed to keep the sign up.
The end may be in sight, however. State highway officials finally have signed off on a $12.8 million contract to divide 6 1/2 miles of Rte. 15, including the most dangerous stretch, into two two-lane highways, widening the final portion of what was planned more than 25 years ago as a major road to Pennsylvania.
But Cody says that only when the last stretch of highway is widened will he tear the sign down.
He cites in part the case of Albert Chapman, a former Walkersville resident who moved to Gettysburg two years ago after his daughter was killed on the road.
Chapman, who also has advocated for years that the road be widened, said his daughter Marion Lynn Lowe was driving home from work with her husband Carroll Lowe Jr. on Jan. 6, 1981, when her car fishtailed across a narrow stretch into a truck. She was killed and her husband was paralyzed.
Maryland State Police said the narrowness of the road and the lack of a clear view contributed to the accident.
His son-in-law is still unable to come to grips with the accident that left his two children motherless, Chapman said.
When Chapman wrote Hughes asking that roadwork be completed quickly, he said he was told in a letter from the governor that there were "more important" roads in Maryland that need mending, including the heavily traveled Capital Beltway in the Washington suburbs.
Most of Rte. 15 was divided by the mid-1970s, but completion of the northernmost, 6.4-mile stretch to the Pennsylvania border was delayed when preservation groups raised questions about a threat to the Catoctin Furnace archeological site just below the highway. The furnace was a cannonball factory during the Revolutionary War and was built by Thomas Johnson, the first elected governor of Maryland.
The state archeologist halted construction in 1977 while he dug for 18th century relics.
If any more relics are found during road construction, state highway officials say they have been told they must stop work so the state historian can have another look.
Maryland State Police and highway officials acknowledge that Rte. 15 is the most dangerous road in Frederick County. In addition to the 37 persons who have died there in the past eight years, 738 injuries have been attributed to the highway, for a total of 1,027 accidents, said First Sgt. Thomas M. Bailey of the state police.
Maryland Rte. 355 in Montgomery County, between Rockville and Gaithersburg, is the most dangerous highway in the state, and I-95 in Prince George's is second, a seven-year study by state police indicates.
There were 1,044 accidents on Rte. 355 last year, resulting in four deaths and 878 injuries. I-95 had 17 deaths and 850 injuries.
One hazard of the most dangerous stretch on Rte. 15 is that Rte. 806 parallels the road there, giving some drivers the false impression that it is a divided highway.
Police said that, as a result, drivers often end up on the wrong side of the road.
Because it is a truck route to Pennsylvania, many accidents have involved tractor trailers, police said.