The country crossroads wakes up meekly, its thin, alluring arms stretching for miles, its beady, yellow eyes blinking in the early-morning darkness.
But by first light, this once-remote crossing of Route 24 and Jarrettsville Road in Harford County is transformed into a menacing beast -- terrorizing motorists and further bolstering its surly distinction as the Baltimore suburbs' most dangerous intersection.
Just last week it ensnarled two more drivers.
At 12:42 p.m. Tuesday, as rain pelted the village of Forest Hill -- four miles north of Bel Air on the way to Rocks State Park -- a Volvo and Volkswagen played bumper-car. The Volvo was driven by Paul Peak, president of the county's Forest Hill State Bank. One of its seven branches sits perilously on a corner at the intersection.
"As have many others," Mr. Peak said philosophically, "I fell victim to the crossroads."
In the five suburban counties around Baltimore City -- Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard -- there are intersections with more accidents.
The State Highway Administration lists only 11 wrecks last year at Route 24 and Jarrettsville Road. But based on its relatively modest volume of traffic -- just 13,650 vehicles a day -- motorists are more likely to crash at this unlikely junction than at any other suburban crossroads.
And they crash far more often than the 11 times a year recorded by the state. Those who live or work at the intersection say they bear witness to an average of one accident a week -- many mere fender benders not reported to police. No one remembers anyone ever getting killed here, and injuries mostly have been minor.
"You hear the brakes and hear the squealing, and then you wait for the crunch," said O. Evelyn Blevins, a native of Forest Hill and assistant branch manager of the bank on the corner.
The main culprit is familiar to all suburbanites: unrelenting growth. This is the heart of Forest Hill -- post office, bank, gas station, convenience store -- still beating with a 1950s pulse. But now the village's only crossroads is so overwhelmed -- by housing developments on carved-up farmland and expansion of a nearby industrial park -- as to be dysfunctional.
Yellow lights flash warnings north and south on Route 24, and stop signs stand smartly on east-west Jarrettsville Road. But westbound motorists on Jarrettsville can hardly see oncoming northbound traffic on 24. Their vision is obstructed by a pole and mangled no-parking sign at the corner, vehicles parked along the highway and a building that houses the post office.
Combined with speeding on Route 24 -- the posted limit through town is 30 mph -- those obstacles contribute to the typical accident. Cars on Jarrettsville Road tend to get smashed crossing or turning onto Route 24.
State traffic engineers have met several times with residents about the hazards.
At one meeting this summer in state Del. James M. Harkins' office, which overlooks the intersection, the delegate was about to pitch the idea of a traffic signal. Suddenly, his office was filled with the sound of squealing tires and crunching metal from the intersection. Delegate Harkins looked out his window and said: "I rest my case."
As a result of the meetings as well as traffic studies, the state finally has decided to usher Forest Hill into the 1990s. At a community meeting Thursday in Bel Air, Dick Harrison, SHA district engineer for Harford and Baltimore counties, revealed the final plan: A modern traffic signal and, at all four approaches, additional lanes for left turns. Both roads are now two lanes.
Construction probably will take place next year, he said. But until then, stop signs will be erected next month on Route 24, temporarily turning the intersection into a four-way stop. The problems already are so severe, Mr. Harrison said, that something must be done now.
His announcement prompted a howl of protest from several residents at the meeting. The quaintness of Forest Hill will vanish in the bright lights of a garish traffic signal, they said. They prefer more modest solutions, such as four-way blinking red lights and aggressive speed enforcement.
"We're trying to preserve that little town feel," said David Pace, a 44-year-old insurance salesman who lives six houses from the intersection.
But many others who know the intersection intimately say it is too late for that and embrace the idea of a traffic signal with turn lanes. Standing on her front porch near the intersection Tuesday, Audrey Warfield, 62, declared: "I've lived here all my life, and stop lights aren't going to change the character of Forest Hill. All the people moving in around here have already done that."
Just an hour later, Mr. Peak, the bank president, became the intersection's latest victim. His was the 11th accident investigated by the state police so far this year -- already matching last year's total.