A Charles County car accident that killed three and sent two to the hospital last weekend pushed this year's highway death count to 29, far beyond the 17 fatalities tallied during all of last year.
If fatal accidents continue at this rate, 2005 would become the deadliest year on Charles County's roadways.
At a news conference in La Plata on Monday, officials with the Charles County Sheriff's Office and the Maryland State Police pleaded with motorists to "slow down."
"We can enforce all the laws and stop a lot of violators, but we're not going to catch them all," said Sheriff Frederick E. Davis (R). He said that despite an increase in the number of traffic citations being issued, drivers on the county's roads do not seem to be reducing their speeds.
Twenty-nine people, including a 7-month-old infant and a 75-year-old retiree, have died in 23 separate traffic accidents. The crashes, which have involved cars, trucks and even a bicycle, have taken place at all different times of the day and night.
Davis said there is "no rhyme or reason" to the spate of accidents, though he did single out busy Route 301 as being particularly dangerous.
The sheriff urged motorists not only to slow down, but also to call the police when they see aggressive drivers or egregious speeders.
Lt. Randy Stephens, commander of the State Police barrack in La Plata, said the Maryland agency will cancel all leave over Labor Day weekend so enough troopers can be deployed on the state's highways to keep it a fatality-free holiday.
In the 10 years from 1995 through 2004, Charles County averaged 24.7 fatalities per year in 22.6 fatal crashes, according to figures provided by the sheriff's office and State Police. Last year, 17 people died in 15 accidents.
A news release issued by the two enforcement agencies warned that at the current pace "more than 50 people could die this year in crashes."
The most recent crash, which drew attention to the problem, occurred at 12:12 a.m. Sunday on Bensville Road in Pomfret.
Jason T. Pasternak, 22, of Waldorf was driving his Mitsubishi Lancer up a winding road with four passengers.
"He was going too fast around a turn. He overcorrected and went off the road," Stephens said.
According to Stephens, there are "indications that there was alcohol involved but no indication that it was the driver who was drinking." Stephens did not provide more information and said it could be a month before police receive an autopsy report.
The front-seat passenger, Mark E. Ryon Jr., 20, of Port Tobacco died at the scene. Nicholas R. Falco III, 22, of La Plata, who was in the back seat, was taken to Prince George's Hospital Center, where he died of his injuries.
Two other back-seat passengers, Shawn M. Burnette, 19, of Port Tobacco and Kevin D. Jobe, 21, of La Plata, were taken to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. As of Tuesday night, Jobe was listed in critical condition, and Burnette was in fair condition, the hospital said.
The accident struck the "extended family" of Ledo Pizza and its owner, Don Mister, especially hard.
Two of the men -- Pasternak and Burnette -- were employed at Ledo Pizza in La Plata. Two others -- Falco and Jobe -- had worked there in the past, Mister said.
"I've been through situations like this," Mister said. "But not many of the kids 15 and 16 years old have."
Just last week, the sheriff's office announced that Route 301 -- from the La Plata barrack south to the Governor Harry Nice Memorial Bridge -- would be designated an "aggressive enforcement area." Officers will use random radar checks as a tactic to get drivers to reduce their speed, according to the sheriff's office.
"We have got to put a stop to this dangerous behavior, so we are making this a no-tolerance zone," Charles County sheriff's Lt. Tim Crawford said in a statement released by the county agency. "Drivers stopped for speeding will be issued a citation."
This year's spate of accidents, however, does not seem to have crossed the county lines.
St. Mary's County has recorded four deaths in four accidents this year. Last year, the county suffered seven deaths in seven accidents, according to information provided by the State Police.
In Calvert County, the death rate is much lower this year than in other recent years, said Debbie Jennings, the county's highway safety grant coordinator. But Jennings cautioned against reading too much significance into these statistics.
"Because typically Southern Maryland has a low number of crashes and fatalities, any change at all is striking," she said. "Two years ago [Calvert's count] was 20. This year it is only two. It's not abnormal to see a large change."
She offered a warning to drivers in Southern Maryland.
"There are more people on our roadways," she said. "We want people to understand that they have to drive defensively, They need to watch for impaired drivers and to buckle up."