NORFOLK, Va. -- A vehicle takes a hard turn on a curve at a high speed. The driver loses control and crashes into a culvert. The momentum of the crash causes the vehicle to go airborne, and carries it and its passengers 125 feet, flipping one and one-half times, then strikes a tree. The passenger from the back seat is thrown out of the vehicle and dies at the scene.
On Sept. 27, three Marines stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., were returning from a soccer game in Jacksonville, N.C., when they crashed. The Marine thrown out of the back seat was a sergeant, the senior Marine in the vehicle. The driver and passenger in the front seat were released with minor injuries. They were wearing their seatbelts. Alcohol was not a factor.
In fiscal year 2006, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Command reported nine fatal personal vehicle mishaps, six of which involved Marines who were ejected from a vehicle. Including the accident on Sept. 27, Alcohol was not a factor in all of these accidents. MARFORCOM is taking a stand to prevent future deaths by instilling in Marines the importance of seatbelt use.
“Seatbelts have been scientifically proven to save lives. Statistics have proven over and over again that when wearing a seatbelt, you survive the accident more often than not,” said Jason C. Hunt, the grounds safety manager for MARFORCOM. “It’s surprising to see how a vehicle can be completely demolished and the person in the vehicle survives because they had their seatbelt on.”
MARFORCOM is taking action and implementing more awareness during safety briefs on holiday and extended weekends by concentrating on the importance of buckling up. Accidents caught on videotape are shown to Marines to remind them what can happen if they do not strap in.
According to 1st Sgt. Bernard C. Coleman, MARFORCOM headquarters and service company first sergeant, the command is using this approach because Marines on liberty are generally only thinking about liberty. “All of the younger guys and gals [Marines] are still thinking they are invincible and they are always in this ‘go mode’ trying to make the most of their time, not really thinking much about safety.”
MARFORCOM safety personnel conduct surveys about twice a year to get an estimate of the percentage of Marines who wear their seatbelts. The surveys show that while Marines are driving on base they have a high percentage of buckling up, but when they are driving off base, that percentage drops to the general-public level, which is 10 percent to 20 percent lower.
States throughout the country have reinforced seatbelt use through various campaigns, like “Click-It-or-Ticket.” These campaigns hold a zero-tolerance policy on safety belt laws. The campaigns increase the likelihood of receiving a traffic ticket, which gives every driver another reason to buckle up. According to Hunt, base military police are also helping with campaign awareness by reminding Marines to buckle up to prevent fatalities in the future.
According to Marine Corps Order 5100.19E, every Marine, passenger or driver, is required to wear a seatbelt when they are traveling in a privately owned vehicle. Any Marine violating this order is subject to administrative or disciplinary action.
If a Marine is in an accident and injuries result from their own misconduct, then they may lose substantial benefits. “You may be paralyzed for the rest of your life and you could receive a fraction of the disability payments that you otherwise would be entitled too,” said Col. Brian T. Palmer, staff judge advocate for MARFORCOM.
According to Hunt, the majority of the accidents that have lead to fatalities this year involve young war veterans, so the lack of seatbelt use among Marines could merely be caused by bad habits.
When Marines are deployed to Iraq, “there’s a lack of seatbelt use in the HUMVEE for fear of needing to get out of the vehicle to defend the convoy,” said Hunt. “Some of that may be coming home with them.”
Hunt insisted that leadership qualities among the junior enlisted need extra emphasis. A Marine can step up to the plate, regardless of rank, and tell another Marine to buckle up. Hunt also specified that every Marine has the responsibility to correct each other and look out for each other whether they are a passenger or driver.
1st Sgt. Coleman agrees that one of the best ways to reinforce seatbelt safety is through the junior enlisted. “The more they [Marines] hear from us, they start to tune us out, but when they hear their peers are aware of it, it becomes more of a concern to them.”
It only takes two seconds--grab the buckle, bring it across and snap it in. Two seconds that would have prevented six Marines from being ejected from a vehicle this year, and most likely would have saved their lives.
“There’s not a Marine who comes in the Corps to die in a car accident. They are here to fight for their country,” said Hunt.