Law enforcement officials patrolling the roadways of Southern Maryland have seen the number of fatal vehicle crashes dip this year when compared with the toll at the same point last year. But a rash of recent fatalities illustrates how quickly the death count can change.

With 2004 half over, there have been 20 traffic deaths in Charles, St. Mary's and Calvert counties. At this time last year, 33 had died. Some officials in the area said the drop in the death toll can be attributed to the unusually high number of fatalities last year -- 58 -- and to a crackdown on drunk drivers and aggressive driving as well as public safety awareness campaigns.

Other officials said it's difficult to pinpoint a reason because most vehicle collisions are governed by randomness: two drivers not paying attention at the same time or a momentary lapse in judgment when negotiating a turn or yielding to traffic.

"There's no rhyme or reason to it," said Lt. Homer Rich of the Maryland State Police in Calvert County, where seven crashes involving eight fatalities have occurred this year. Of 17 crashes involving 20 fatalities last year in the county, seven were alcohol-related. Of the collisions this year, one has been determined to be alcohol-related, Rich said.

Rich said he is disappointed to have eight deaths this year: "I was hoping to have fewer than that, but we're doing everything we can to try to take care of this serious problem."

In St. Mary's County, authorities reported that of three crashes involving three fatalities this year, one involved narcotics, said Deputy Mark Clark of the St. Mary's County Sheriff's Office. That compares with seven crashes involving 10 fatalities at this time last year. Last year, the county saw 14 crashes involving 17 fatalities with eight of those crashes being alcohol-related, Clark said.

This year, nine people have died on Charles County roads, said Rebecca Martin, traffic safety coordinator with the Charles County Sheriff's Office. That compares with 11 fatalities at this time last year. Last year, the county had 21 fatalities, Martin said. Statistics on how many wrecks were reported or how many of them were alcohol-related were unavailable.

"Some of these didn't have to be fatal accidents if people were wearing their seat belts," Martin said of the deadly crashes this year. "Statistics have shown that seat belts save lives and reduce injuries when worn correctly."

Among the recent accidents in Charles County:

At 9:32 p.m. June 20, Bob Leo Murphy Jr., 50, of Waldorf was trying to walk across U.S. 301 north of Pierce Road when he was struck by a car driven by Nicole Holland, 31, of Riverdale, said state police in La Plata.

Witnesses said that while they were waiting for an emergency vehicle to arrive to help Murphy, who survived the impact and remained lying in the road, another vehicle ran over him, causing fatal injuries.

Murphy was pronounced dead at the scene, according to the state police, who are asking anyone with any information about the second vehicle -- which did not stop and which witnesses were unable to describe -- to call Trooper L. Hewitt at 301-392-1266, Ext. 3308.

At 8:07 a.m. June 14, John Lord, 20, of Dunkirk was killed when the car he was driving westbound on Route 231, east of Colonial Lane, crossed the double yellow line and struck a dump truck being driven by Charles Somerville, 52, of Hollywood. Lord, who was flown to Prince George's Hospital, died the next day, said state police.

In Calvert County, three people were killed in one weekend in two separate accidents, said the Calvert County Sheriff's Office.

At 12:50 p.m. June 12, William Hurde Helme, 86, of Solomons, was killed after the car he was driving collided with two other vehicles at Route 2/4 and Patuxent Point Parkway in Solomons, the sheriff's office said.

At 3:30 a.m. June 13, George Brewster, 21, of St. Leonard and Kristi Gulley, 21, of Lusby were killed when the vehicles they were driving collided head-on at H.G. Trueman Road near Coster Road in Lusby, the sheriff's office said.

Speaking in general about fatal accidents, Rich of the state police said that "the main cause is not using due care traveling through key intersections. You have to be attentive out here."

Rich said that although drunken driving, speeding and not wearing seat belts are serious concerns among law enforcement officials, there are other common-sense ways to avoid being involved in a wreck.

"Most of the crashes are caused by people failing to yield to oncoming traffic," he said. "Typically, the person who hits them . . . is not doing anything wrong."

In 2002, the last year statewide statistics are available, 696 people died in traffic accidents in Maryland, said Isabelle Horon, director of the Vital Statistics Administration at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Horon said that nearly 2,000 people died in the tri-county Southern Maryland area in 2002, making traffic fatalities a widely reported but small fraction of the total deaths. But those numbers don't make it any easier for relatives to cope with a sudden death or to make sense of a tragedy.

"A lot of people want to blame the road, the engineering of the road," Martin said. "But we need to engineer better drivers."

Rich echoed that sentiment. "You have to be out there paying attention all the time," Rich said. "The key to safe driving is paying full attention to what you are doing."