A 44-minute break can be a welcome relief in a day crammed with geometry and literature, grammar and history.

And so when the lunch bell rings, some students find their way to the cafeteria. But a great many more bolt from the confines of Seneca Valley High School and hit the streets--in their cars or on foot--in search of a little freedom.

"High school's hard enough as it is," said Angela Wesley, a junior who ate lunch at McDonald's yesterday with two friends. "It's like a break."

Every minute away from school is a precious one. Seneca Valley, however, is one of a dwindling number of high schools in the Washington region that continue to allow students to leave campus during lunch period.

As concerns about traffic, troublemaking and other dangers beyond school walls have grown, more schools have ended their "open campus" policies, often with the support of parents and communities.

At least a few parents and school officials questioned whether Seneca Valley might reconsider its policy after three of its students were injured Thursday, one critically, when the car in which they were riding during their lunch break struck a utility pole.

Police blamed the accident on speeding and inexperienced driving. The driver, Mikhail Barg, 17, a senior, had just gotten his license in July.

He remained in a coma yesterday, and was transported to Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore with severe injuries to his brain and chest and multiple bone fractures. A passenger, Boris Parris, 14, remains in serious condition at Children's Hospital.

Officials in Fairfax, Prince George's and Howard counties could not remember a time in recent decades when their schools allowed students to leave for lunch. In the District, schools stopped letting students leave the grounds for lunch in 1992, citing safety concerns. Just two D.C. high schools allow students to leave campus, and that's because they do not have cafeterias.

Arlington schools tightened their rules in the 1980s, limiting open lunch to seniors with parents' permission. Anne Arundel schools allowed students off campus in the 1970s to relieve crowded cafeterias but stopped as school construction caught up with enrollment. Private school policies vary: Some let students out, some don't.

"The idea was to keep things simple, with everyone in the building all day, without the potential for distraction," said Anne Arundel school spokesman Michael Walsh, explaining that district's decision to do away with open lunches. "The idea was to have there be one less car trip, one less kid coming back late to class or not at all, one less opportunity to go off and drink or smoke."

Montgomery County, however, leaves it up to individual high schools to decide whether to allow students off campus for lunch. Nine of the county's 23 high schools allow at least some of their students to leave school grounds for lunch. For many county schools, which have seen their enrollment numbers swell in recent years, open lunches are a way to cope with cafeterias that are too small. Seneca Valley has 1,500 students, while the cafeteria has room for just 348.

Montgomery County school board member Nancy J. King (Upcounty) said school officials have considered changing the open lunch policy at Seneca Valley, but the idea has not been a popular one.

"I think we'll probably take a look at it," she said. "We're just wondering if it's a wise idea to continue letting students leave school."

Six years ago, four ninth-grade girls at Gaithersburg High School were struck by a car as they darted out from behind a bus and tried to run across six lanes of traffic on busy Route 355 to go to a 7-Eleven during their lunch break.

That accident prompted a review of the school's open lunch policy, but Gaithersburg High remains open. Martin Svrcek, an assistant principal at the 2,800-student school, said only freshmen are not allowed to leave campus for lunch. The cafeteria can fit about 600 students, he said, but the majority walk to nearby stores or jump in the car and drive.

Alex Aviles, a Gaithersburg junior, considers the right to leave school for lunch a privilege, especially because his friends at other high schools gripe about their closed lunch policies.

"It's like our time to relax," he said, "because you don't get to do it in class."

Staff writers David Nakamura, Fern Shen and Valerie Strauss contributed to this report.