By John Hollis, Belvoir EagleJune 19, 2014
Fort Belvoir, Va. (June 19, 2014) - Soldiers by definition are no strangers to risks, but it's the unnecessary ones some are taking while riding motorcycles that has Army officials concerned.
There have already been 23 confirmed motorcycle fatalities in the latest statistics from Oct. 1, 2013, to June 12, 2014, according to Army statistics. The 28 percent increase from the 18 motorcycle-related deaths from this same period a year ago is troubling enough, but the "staggering" number of noncommissioned officers involved in these preventable accidents has been even more disconcerting.
Seventeen of the Army's 23 motorcycle losses involved leaders at the rank of sergeant and above. A colonel was the only officer among the fatalities.
"This trend is unacceptable," said Command Sgt. Maj. Leeford C. Cain, U.S. Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center. "During the past several years, our Army has lost a staggering number of NCOs in preventable motorcycle mishaps, often due to indiscipline and negligence on the rider. What kind of message is this sending to the young Soldiers in our formations? It is time for us -- command sergeants major and sergeant majors across the Army -- to start engaging with our subordinate leaders on safety, holding them to the same standards expected of our Soldiers."
It's urgent that something be done, Cain said.
"Our enlisted leaders are truly the backbone of our Army," he said, "and we need them all to keep our force ready for tomorrow's challenges."
The advent of summer means there will be more Soldiers taking to their motorcycles, so Fort Belvoir officials are urging discretion when riding.
"Soldiers across the board are risk-takers," said Chris McCormick, Fort Belvoir Garrison Safety Director. "They cut loose sometimes. You just can't do it on a motorcycle."
Servicemembers are hardly alone in this category. Motorcycle fatalities have risen overall nationally, with 4,927 motorcycle deaths reported in 2012 compared to 4,630 in 2011, according to the latest U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics.
Those deaths accounted for 15 percent of the total highway fatalities in 2012, despite motorcycle registrations representing only three percent of all vehicles in the U.S., according to the NHTSA. The number of injured motorcyclists also climbed in 2012, spiking from 81,000 in 2011 to 93,000 in 2012.
Most of the fatalities have been the result of rider errors, usually from speeding, failure to wear a proper helmet or the use of alcohol.
The NHTSA estimates that 1,699 lives were saved in 2012 because of proper helmet usage, but that another 781 more might have been spared if helmets had been worn. Nineteen states, including Virginia, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have universal helmet law requiring helmets for all riders.
Alcohol also continues to be a major factor in motorcycle fatalities, with the national percentage of motorcycle riders who were intoxicated in fatal crashes (27 percent) is greater than the percentage of drivers of passenger cars (23 percent) and light trucks (22 percent) in fatal crashes in 2012, according to the NHTSA. Twenty-nine percent of all fatally-injured, motorcyclists in 2012 had a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher.
"It's people not respecting the bike, no cage and that they have a lot of power underneath them," said Staff Sgt. Steven Finch, Garrison Command Group, Fort Belvoir.
Fort Belvoir has largely avoided adding to those stark totals, said Sgt. Andrew Brown, Fort Belvoir Police Department. Brown, an avid motorcyclist himself, credited the Fort Belvoir Safety Office for its role in enhancing motorcycle safety on post.
In addition to their individual home-state permits, all servicemembers wishing to ride a motorcycle on Fort Belvoir are required to take a mandatory safety class through the Safety Office, with specific training for beginners, more experienced riders and sport bike riders. Additional training is required over time.
Servicemembers who return after having been deployed for longer than 180 days must re-take the safety class. Civilians who ride motorcycles on post are not mandated to take the safety class, although they are encouraged to do so.
All motorcyclists -- both servicemembers and civilian alike -- are required to wear helmets, glasses and other protective gear.
"We care about our civilian employees all the same," McCormick said. "At the end of the day, we don't want anybody getting hurt."
Motorcyclists are strongly encouraged to adhere to all traffic laws and to always avoid riding while distracted or impaired. Other safety suggestions include the wearing of bright-colored clothes so as to make sure their presence is known, making sure to leave added space between you and the car ahead of you and riding in the center lane, where other motorists can clearly see you.
Cain said it was imperative that Soldiers do better.
"Soldiers must have confidence in their leaders, and, in turn, those leaders must build their Soldiers' confidence in safety," he said. "Leader indiscipline is reflected in the ranks, but the reverse is also true: Disciplined leaders produce disciplined Soldiers."