WASHINGTON -- Buckle up your seat belt and don't drive too fast. This age-old advice applies as much on the streets of Baghdad as on Main Street, USA.
Vehicle accidents—involving both tactical and nontactical vehicles—are the leading cause of noncombat fatalities in Iraq. Most result from excessive speed and not wearing seat belts, according to J.T. Coleman from the Army Safety Center at Fort Rucker, Ala.
Since October 2002, motor vehicle accidents killed 49 soldiers and caused 82 soldier injuries in Iraq. Coleman said most accidents occurred in convoys in forward areas, with speed a factor in more than half of the accidents, and failure to use seat belts contributing to the severity of injuries in almost half of all Humvee accidents.
Maj. Nat Fahy, a media officer with Headquarters Marine Corps, said U.S. military drivers in Iraq face other challenges on the road. Local drivers and the current Iraqi highway infrastructure aren't always held to the same safety standards and practices as in the United States, he said, and sometimes Iraqi drivers take unnecessary risks that threaten U.S. military drivers.
During the first two months of the ground war alone, several Marines also died in vehicle accidents in Iraq. Among them were Lance Cpl. Brian E. Anderson with 2nd Marine Division's 2nd Light Reconnaissance Battalion; Pfc. Chad Bales with 1st Transportation Support Battalion, 1st Force Service Support Group; Staff Sgt. James Cawley with 2nd Battalion, 23rd Regiment, Marine Reservist Division; Sgt. Nicholas Hodson with 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment; Maj. Kevin Nave with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Regiment; and Lance Cpl. William W. White with 3rd Amphibious Assault Battalion, 1st Marine Division.
Statistics were not yet available since the Marine Corps began sending troop rotations back to Iraq in March.
In a policy letter sent to the field in February, Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, called the loss of lives and equipment due to traffic accidents "unacceptable" and said they've cut into combat fighting capabilities.
Sanchez directed combat leaders to conduct risk assessments to identify and assess hazards, then put controls into place to minimize them. "The decision may be to change, alter or cancel the mission," he said.
Seat belt wear is mandatory, Sanchez said, emphasizing that no one has the authority to waive the requirement. In addition, all soldiers and Defense Department civilians are required to wear Kevlar helmets with the chinstrap secured while operating or riding in vehicles while conducting operations, on or off post. All troops must also wear fragmentation protective vests while in vehicles off post.
Coleman said some soldiers have complained that they can't wear their seat belts because they simply don't fit over full battle gear, including flak vest. In response, the Army is fielding longer seat belts for vehicles in or bound for Southwest Asia, he said, and Army engineers are developing a five-point harness system similar to that used in some military aircraft.
But defense officials aren't buying the argument that soldiers shouldn't use seat belts because they want to be able to get out of their vehicles as quickly as possible if necessary.
"There have been no documented cases in which troops have been injured as a result of being unable to respond to hostile action because they were restrained by seat belts," said Sanchez in his policy letter. "However, there are many documented cases of injuries and fatalities from not wearing seat belts."
In his policy letter, Sanchez called on convoy commanders to conduct a safety briefing that addresses weapon status and rules of engagement, the route of travel, known hazards, breakdown procedures, how to call for help in an emergency, emergency medical procedures, convoy speed and spacing, as well as post-accident and lost vehicle procedures.
Sanchez's directive supports Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's challenge, issued last May to DoD's military and civilian leaders and rank and file, to cut mishaps and accident rates by 50 percent within the next two years.
The services are taking the Rumsfeld challenge seriously. The Army's new safety campaign, with its "Be Safe" slogan, aims to emphasize safety servicewide. As part of the plan, the U.S. Army Safety Center released a new "Making Safety Personal" video, in which a retired Mississippi state patrolman discusses the personal impact of unsafe driving, relating experiences from some of the 184 fatal accidents he investigated.
Safeguarding against accidents is "about not becoming complacent," Sgt. Maj. of the Army Ken Preston said shortly after coming on board as the Army's top enlisted soldier. "It's ensuring soldiers out there follow procedures established in policies, regulations, operating manuals."
Fahy said vehicle safety remains a top priority in the Marine Corps as well, especially during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He called on Marine drivers to be "more vigilant" and "take extra precautions" while operating vehicles in Iraq.