Motorcycle, Vehicle Accidents Dominate Off-Duty Summer Fatalities
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 11, 2008 Midway through the “101 Critical Days of Summer,” 50 servicemembers have died in off-duty accidents, half on motorcycles, defense officials reported.
This graph reflects the number of off-duty accidents involving motor vehicles in which servicemembers have died since Memorial Day.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The 101 Critical Days of Summer refers to the period between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day that typically sees a spike in vehicle and recreational accidents. “It’s the time when more people get outside and enjoy off-duty activities and more people are traveling,” said John Seibert, the Defense Department’s assistant for safety, health and fire. “But unfortunately, it’s also a time when we see more accidents.”
Motor vehicles remain the No. 1 cause of off-duty military deaths, and despite broad safety awareness efforts militarywide, that trend shows no sign of diminishing this summer. Thirty-seven servicemembers have died in motor vehicles since May 23.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates noted in a safety message to the field sent just before Memorial Day that 77 servicemen and –women were killed in private motor accidents during last year’s 101 Critical Days of Summer.
Officials say they’re particularly concerned about the incidence of motorcycle deaths – 25 militarywide since Memorial Day weekend. Citing high fuel prices and cash accumulated during deployments that are driving up motorcycles’ popularity within the force, officials say they fear these numbers will only go up.
Eighteen of the Army’s 23 off-duty fatalities since Memorial Day have involved privately owned vehicles. Of those, 12 soldiers were killed riding motorcycles and one, an all-terrain vehicle, reported J.T. Coleman from the Army’s Combat Readiness and Safety Center at Fort Rucker, Ala.
Similarly, 10 of the 12 sailors who died in off-duty accidents since May 23 were involved in vehicle accidents, according to April Phillips from the Naval Safety Center in Norfolk, Va. Eight of the Navy fatalities involved motorcycles.
The Marine Corps reported eight off-duty losses since the 101 critical days of summer campaign launched. Six of the eight Marines died in vehicle accidents, with three killed on motorcycles, said Marine Lt. Col. Mike Miller, who heads up the Corps’ ground safety branch in Washington.
The Air Force, experiencing one of its safest summers in a decade, reported seven off-duty deaths since the Memorial Day weekend. Of those, one involved a four-wheeled vehicle and two involved motorcycles, said Jewell Hicks from the Air Force Safety Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.
That’s a significant improvement from last year, when 19 airmen died during the 101 critical days. Fifteen of those deaths resulted from vehicle accidents, and seven of the airmen were riding motorcycles.
Air Force Chief of Safety Maj. Gen. Wendell Griffin blamed speeding, loss of control and improper techniques while rounding curves as the leading causes behind the motorcycle deaths. He noted in a videotaped message to the Air Force launching this year’s 101 Critical Days of Summer campaign that failure to wear a helmet and mixing alcohol with riding contributed to some of these crashes.
But Miller cited the growing popularity of sport bikes as another factor driving up motorcycle accidents. These high-performance motorcycles travel at extremely high speeds and can be difficult to control.
“It truly is like trading in your Dodge minivan for a Ferrari,” Miller said. “You don’t so much ride one of these as hang on for dear life.”
It’s little surprise that young servicemembers, attracted by the adrenaline rush sports bikes promise and their relatively low cost, are lining up to buy them. And while disturbing, officials say, it’s also not surprising that they’re contributing to more military deaths.
For example, 19 of the 21 motorcycle fatalities so far this fiscal year occurred on sport bikes, Phillips reported. Nine of the Army’s 12 off-duty motorcycle deaths since the Memorial Day weekend involved sports bikes, Coleman said.
Miller said that while he doesn’t yet have statistics to back up his hunch, he’s sure they’re driving up Marine Corps fatalities, too. He noted that the Marine Corps lost 19 Marines to motorcycle deaths during fiscal 2007. With almost a full quarter of fiscal 2008 ahead, that number hit 18 on July 10.
Intent on bucking this trend, the military is taking action. In addition to the basic motorcycle safety course all military riders must take, the services now promote specialized training for those who ride high-performance motorcycles.
The Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Military Sport Bike Course is now mandatory for all sailors who ride sport bikes, Phillips said. The course also is being offered to soldiers at a growing number of Army bases.
Meanwhile, the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune, N.C., which is leading the Marine Corps’ sport bike safety effort, is contracting with a professional motorcycle school and expanding the training to several Marine Corps sites, Miller said.
The Air Force’s Air Mobility Command developed a sport bike safety class that’s mandatory for all its airmen. It provides the training materials on request to all other Air Force installations, explained Frank Kelly at the Air Force Safety Center.
Meanwhile, as the 101 critical days of summer continue, military leaders are urging vigilance and a focus on safety.
Gates emphasized in his safety message to the field each servicemember’s responsibility in promoting motor vehicle safety. “Know that the choices you make at sporting events, barbecues and other summer activities can impair your judgment and reaction times, all of which are necessary for safe driving,” he said.
He reminded servicemembers that most vehicle accidents involve alcohol, fatigue or excessive speed, and most are preventable. “Don’t put your life or the lives of others in danger by making poor decisions,” he said. “Your safety and the safety of those around you is in your hands.”
Army Brig. Gen. William Forrester, commander of the Army Combat Readiness and Safety Center, cited the 2008 July 4 holiday as the first in decades with no fatal off-duty accidents within the Army. “To put this into perspective, this is the first recorded fatality-free Fourth of July holiday period the Army has experienced since the U.S. Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center began keeping records in 1974,” he said.
Forrester noted, however, that three reserve-component soldiers who were not in a duty status were killed in motorcycle accidents during the holiday weekend.
The Air Force and Navy also reported fatality-free July 4 weekends in terms of off-duty accidents.
The Marine Corps suffered two off-duty fatalities during the holiday weekend. A corporal died July 5 after his motorcycle hit a curb and threw him onto the street, officials said. A staff sergeant was killed July 6 when his motorcycle veered off the road, struck a curb, then ran into a tree.
Rear Adm. Arthur J. Johnson, commander of the Naval Safety Center, reminded the fleet this week it’s not too late to begin a summer safety campaign. “Now that we’re back from the Fourth of July holiday, it’s time to take a hard look at the job we’ve done managing risk to far this summer,” he said. That, he said, includes reinforcing behaviors and attitudes that can make the all-important difference between life and death.
Militarywide, officials emphasized the importance of leadership in promoting safety awareness and preventing off-duty accidents.
Forrester said engaged leadership lays the foundation for the cultural shift needed for troops to take personal responsibility for their own safety. This, he said, will help drive down accidental losses. Griffin said in his 101 Critical Days of Summer video that every day offers an opportunity for servicemembers to help identify unsafe practices that can save a comrade’s or buddies’ life.
Ultimately, safety boils down to a readiness issue, because the military needs every single member to carry out its mission, Griffin said. “As we continue to wage the global war on terror, we can’t afford to lose a single one of our most precious resources,” he said, the men and women in uniform “who make the mission happen every day.”