In the first six months of 2004, no one younger than age 21 died in a traffic accident in Howard County.
The next six months, however, brought a shower of pain to the friends and families of four young people who were killed in car crashes, including a 3-year-old girl who wasn't strapped into a child safety seat.
The public, particularly in neighboring Montgomery County where 13 people younger than age 21 were killed in traffic collisions last year, was riveted on the issues involved - from speeding to inexperienced drivers to alcohol or drug intoxication.
Yesterday, some of Howard County's top officials - including the police chief, the county executive and the schools superintendent - announced a broad initiative to focus on youth driving safety this year. Citing national statistics, police said motor vehicle crashes were the leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 20.
Police Chief G. Wayne Livesay sketched out details, including plans to buy "two or three" more unmarked vehicles for traffic enforcement, launch an Arrive Alive program in high schools and invite students and parents to witness drunken-driving checkpoints on county roads.
"At this point, we're working on education and enforcement," Livesay said after yesterday's news conference. "And if we need more legislation to make it stick, we're all for it. Something's got to be done to turn this around."
County Executive James N. Robey said homicides often gain more media attention than traffic fatalities.
Last year, Howard County had one homicide. But 19 people died in motor vehicles on county roads - four younger than 21, police said. An additional 11 people died on Interstates 70 and 95 in Howard County in accidents that were handled by the Maryland State Police.
"I want people to feel the same way" about traffic deaths as homicides, Robey said.
The biggest factor in youth-driving deaths involved speeding. Police said 80 percent of the county's deadly crashes involving youths were speed-related.
Sydney L. Cousin, the county schools superintendent, said that it seems every year, particularly in the spring, he gets a phone call from police informing him of the death of a county student in a traffic accident.
"It's one of the most traumatic things we face in the school system," Cousin said.
The joint police-school program Arrive Alive entails officers displaying in schools photographs and statistics about fatal accidents.
"We hope every time a student walks by one of these displays and out to the parking lot, he or she will think twice about risky behavior on the road," Livesay said.
Livesay did not provide budget estimates other than to say he would like to dedicate "significant resources" to the effort. Robey said he was waiting to see the chief's proposal but was committed to doing "everything in this county to save lives."
Among the unmarked vehicles the department is considering purchasing are a Chevrolet Tahoe - a large sport utility vehicle - and a Ford Mustang, Livesay said.
In cases involving drunken-driving fatalities, Livesay said, another tactic police employ is tracking down the person who provided alcohol to a minor.
A few months ago, authorities did just that in Montgomery County, where speed played a major role in the majority of the accidents involving youths. Police stepped up enforcement after five young people died in three accidents over a weekend in September.
Then, in November, a 16-year-old Potomac boy with alcohol in his system plowed his Jeep Grand Cherokee into a tree after leaving a late-night house party. Authorities said speed was a factor and that the teenager was not wearing a seat belt. He died from his injuries.
Police found the party and issued citations for possession of alcohol to 14 youths, according to news reports.