Out in the woods, down by the old paper mill, winds a bumpy stretch of College Avenue in Ellicott City that teenagers call Seven Hills. It can be peaceful there: Some of the oldest homes in Howard County line the road, and deer roam the woods.
But tranquillity is not what many teenagers are after. They go there for the adrenaline rush of "hill hopping" -- speeding on one of the steep hills until their car briefly takes flight. If they're lucky, the car crashes down with a thud that shakes the trees, and they roar off to the next hill.
If they're not lucky, they get hurt. In some cases, they die.
In the waning days of summer, two teenagers were killed and one seriously injured in a crash on that section of road, which is scarred from legions of cars bottoming out after they crested the hills. Memorials line the shoulder -- teddy bears, dried flowers, soggy letters written on notebook paper -- and "SLOW DOWN" is spray-painted on the asphalt. The cautionary words are fading but still visible.
The Howard County accident and a similar one in Fairfax County a few weeks earlier have focused attention on the dangers of hill hopping, a cheap thrill for bored suburban teenagers with freshly laminated driver's licenses. All that's needed is a remote road with a decent grade and a couple of kids with a car.
"Not saying I'm dumb or anything, but I'm not afraid to die, so I'm not afraid to take that chance," said Sam Crouch, 18, of Baltimore.
But the odds aren't good. Across the country, there's a long list of those who have chanced it and lost. Crouch's 16-year-old sister, Alicia, was the only teenager to escape with minor injuries in the most recent fatal accident on College Avenue.
Although police have tracked accidents related to drag racing since 1998 -- there were 135 in the United States last year -- national statistics are not kept on hill hopping, which has stayed below the radar despite scores of local horror stories. In Howard's Seven Hills area alone, dozens of teenagers have been hurt in the past five years. In the Fairfax accident on July 31, a 16-year-old died and a 17-year-old was critically injured on what some call Dead Man's Hill, near the intersection of Rayjohn and Bennett roads in Chantilly.
Two years ago in the suburbs of Cincinnati, six young people died in three hill hopping accidents over 10 months. And in the suburbs of Kansas City, Mo., two carloads of teenagers hit the same tree within a two-week period in 1992.
"Even when I go on TV or you write an article, it doesn't deter them," said Julie Hersey, a Fairfax police spokeswoman. "I guess when you're 17 years old, you're pretty much invincible. At least you think you are."
None of the statistics was on Ian Woods's mind when he rode Seven Hills. He wasn't worried that the speed limit there is 25 mph. He just thought: Everyone else is doing it.
Woods, now 22, of Columbia, said he went hill hopping frequently during high school, sometimes by himself, sometimes with friends, sometimes after drinking. The craziest time he remembers is when he and about 11 others packed into the bed of a Toyota truck and hit the hills at 70 mph.
"It's scary as hell, but that's why it's fun," he said. "I don't think I've ever done something so dangerous in my life."
That type of attitude, combined with the inexperience of young drivers, can be deadly, authorities say. The risk of a car accident is four times greater when the driver is 16 to 19 years old, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The U.S. Department of Transportation lists car crashes as the leading cause of death for 15- to 20-year-olds.
For Michelle Luhn, 18, of Delhi, Ohio, those numbers are a stark reality. She had had her driver's license only three days when she got behind the wheel to drive 10 other teenagers in her mom's Jeep. It was the last day of school in June 2000. Police say the Jeep was going about 60 mph along a hill hopping spot in Delhi, a Cincinnati suburb, when Luhn smashed into a utility pole, killing two 13-year-old girls.
The accident wrecked her life, she said. Her parents divorced shortly afterward. She left school because her classmates shunned her, calling her "killer" in the hallways. The mother of one of the girls who died is suing her family.
In high school, Luhn remembers nearly falling asleep while she watched safe-driving videos, thinking a fatal accident could never happen to her. Now she's determined to wake up other teenagers. She talks to students at Ohio high schools about the dangers of hill hopping and has told her story in a safety video.
"If I could just save one other person's life without even knowing it, it's all worth it," she said.
The hill that Luhn crashed on has been leveled.
Some Howard residents are pushing to do the same for Seven Hills. Cpl. Lisa Myers, a county police spokeswoman, said patrols were increased there after the accident in August but are back to normal levels. Though police use radar guns in that area, "there's no way to focus on every hill 24 hours a day," she said.
Chantilly High School resource officer James P. Berling said he plans to include hill hopping in safe-driving lectures to students in the spring.
Many kids eventually stop riding the hills as they mature and leave their teen years behind. Katie Duncan, 20, of Woodlawn in Baltimore County quit suddenly after her twin sister, Amber, died three years ago.
When she and Amber were 17, Duncan said, they hill-hopped almost every night. So she wasn't worried when Amber drove off with a friend one July evening in 1999. But Amber wasn't driving that night. Her friend lost control of his 1987 Honda CRX as it launched into the air. The teenagers slammed into a tree, and the car rolled over.
At 11:45 that night, Duncan said, she felt a sharp pain in her stomach. It turned out to be the time her sister had died.
The next day, Duncan visited the accident scene. The road was covered with spray-painted messages: RIP Amber, we miss you, we love you. Friends had also scrawled notes to Amber on rocks and trees nearby.
Katie Duncan never wrote anything out there. "I just sat [on the side of the road] and thought and tried to understand," she said. "I don't know if I understand even now."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.