More than five inches of snow fell in parts of the Washington area yesterday, making roads hazardous enough to cause the death of a 5-year-old boy on a sled, authorities said.

In many places the storm brought only an inch or two of snow, just enough for a taste of winter, but that appeared to be sufficient to send some students home early, cause nervous workers to call it a day before dark, and cancel evening concerts and scores of other events.

About 6 p.m. in the Charlotte Hall area of southern Charles County, a car hit an icy patch on Route 6, slid off the road and struck a sled carrying the boy, identified as Jeremy Colton Caleco, and two of his relatives, Maryland State Police said.

Christiana Grace Zell, 11, was critically injured, and her brother Joseph Anthony Zell, 10, was being treated for non-life-threatening injuries, said Trooper 1st Class Jason Scott.

The children's sled was being pulled by an all-terrain vehicle driven by an adult on a grassy area off Route 6, Scott said. A preliminary investigation indicated that the driver of the automobile thought that the ATV was on the road. He apparently swerved to avoid a possible collision and then lost control on the slick pavement, Scott said.

Although light snow continued to fall after midnight and into this morning, the initial snowfall prediction of up to eight inches in spots was knocked down to two to four inches for the District and nearby suburbs. Three to six inches were forecast for Southern Maryland and for Virginia's Spotsylvania and Stafford counties.

The National Weather Service received a report just before midnight of 51/2 inches of snow in Hollywood in St. Mary's County. By 10 p.m., four inches had already accumulated in La Plata, three inches in Accokeek and Fredericksburg, and two inches in Manassas, Annapolis and Damascus.

By about 8:30 p.m., the first inch of snow of the season was reported at Reagan National Airport.

Most of the snow was expected to end between midnight and 4 a.m. today.

Officials in Stafford, Spotsylvania and Culpeper counties in Virginia said schools there will be closed today.

Transportation officials throughout the region said last night that they were continuing to spread salt on major roads. Even in the Fredericksburg area, where the heaviest snow was reported, "we pretty much have a handle on things," said Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Tina Bundy.

But highway department officials advised motorists to be cautious this morning and to be aware of possible slick spots, especially on less frequently traveled roads.

"We're not talking about anything you have to plow out of the way from this event. It's a taste of winter," said Steven Zubrick, the science and operations officer who oversees the Weather Service office in Sterling. "This is really not a big deal for this area."

Even so, the evening rush started hours early as commuters high-tailed it home. By 3:30 p.m., when barely a dusting stuck to trees, many major roads were jammed as if the 5 o'clock bell had rung. Traffic experts said it was all just a bit too much -- not to mention potentially dangerous.

"At the first drop of snow, people go into a panic mode," said John Townsend, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "It's almost like a primal fear that we have of snow. It's irrational and, strangely enough, it leads to more accidents and crashes."

Cold temperatures were predicted for the rest of the week, and another chance of snow was foreseen as early as Thursday night.

Meteorologists scaled back initial projections yesterday when it appeared that a low-pressure system, coming from the South, did not have enough moisture to dump significant snowfall. By the time the system gained enough strength, forecasters said, it would be too far east to severely hit the Washington area.

The gauzy, white veil cast over the region yesterday upended school pickup schedules and called for patience on the roads. At 3 p.m., the Baltimore-Washington Parkway had been transformed into a virtual parking lot, and the intersection of Route 1 and East-West Highway in Riverdale Park was jammed.

James Bryant, a handyman who lives in Rockville, was among those making an early exodus from the District. Bryant was helping a client redecorate her home near Washington National Cathedral when he looked out a window and saw the snow falling.

"I thought, 'I need to get out of here,' " he said as he filed out of the Rockville Metro station. "People around here, if there is the slightest spit of any weather, they freak out, so I decided I better beat the crowd."

At least six school systems -- those in Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, Frederick, Fredericksburg and St. Mary's -- sent students home early. Schools in Prince George's, Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties canceled after-school activities.

In Southern Maryland, parents picking up their children early from school traded horror stories about their interrupted schedules and heavy traffic as well as tips on what to do with the rest of the day.

Trina Miles, 37, who commutes between her home in Waldorf and her Arlington job, said she decided early that she wouldn't even try to go into work. She worked from home, a move that paid off when Charles schools closed two hours early.

"I've learned my lesson," said Miles, a mother of three, who waited at Jenifer Elementary School. "You got to try to race to the school, got to think of how to deal with work. Meanwhile, every other parent is on the road trying to do the same thing."

Despite the warnings, many parents were caught unprepared by the school closings. Some principals said that getting the word out was chaotic.

"When there's nothing on the ground, not all the parents listen," said Richard Chilipko, principal of Glendale Elementary School in Glen Burnie, which closed two hours early. "The main office was a zoo."

At the University of the District of Columbia, the annual holiday concert was postponed as a courtesy to performers traveling from the suburbs. Late in the day, when the snowfall predictions were lowered, school spokesman Mike Andrews acknowledged, "We panic, yes, we do."

Staff writers Lori Aratani, Michelle Boorstein, Daniel de Vise, Petula Dvorak, Hamil R. Harris, Nelson Hernandez, Aruna Jain, Allan Lengel, Jamie Stockwell, William Wan and Martin Weil contributed to this report.

Nick Hogg distracts Forrest with a game so he and a friend can finish a snowman at Virginia Highlands Park in Pentagon City. Hogg is from New Zealand; his co-builder is from Crete.Salt trucks stand by on northbound Interstate 95 near the Woodbridge exit. Some major routes were clogged because many people left work early.