The U.S. Army is a broad representation of the United States, and as such, mirrored the national trend in FY20 which saw an increase in motor vehicle accident fatalities despite a decrease in vehicle miles traveled. Fatalities on U.S. highways rose 4.6% during the first nine months of 2020 despite COVID-19 lockdowns that curtailed driving early in the year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates 28,190 people died in traffic crashes from January through September 2020, up from 26,941 during the same period in 2019.
“Preliminary data tells us that during the national health emergency, fewer Americans drove, but those who did took more risks and had more fatal crashes,” NHTSA stated in a letter addressed to the nation’s drivers. Traffic deaths rose 0.6% during the first quarter 2020, but fell 1.1% in the second quarter as COVID-19 lockdowns restricted movement. Fatalities spiked 13.1% from July through September, according to the agency.
“We think the big culprit is speeding,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. Early in the pandemic, drivers found open roads and drove faster. The behavior continued even as traffic volumes recovered, Adkins said.
According to NHTSA, recent reports show a 22% increase in vehicle speeds in several metropolitan areas over pre-pandemic numbers. Also, a study found 65% of drivers treated at trauma centers from serious crashes last year had drugs or alcohol in their systems. That number was 50.6% before the pandemic, according to the NHTSA. The agency also added that fewer people are wearing seat belts.
This leads us to FY21 for the U.S. Army. There were a total of 87 off-duty Soldier fatalities, which is slightly higher than the five-year average of 85. While it was not the best year on record for off-duty Class A mishaps, the 88 mishaps are consistent with the five-year average of 88 and are still in line with a downward trend despite last year’s record low of 74 mishaps which was most likely due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
Army off-duty mishaps involving private motor vehicles (PMVs) accounted for the majority of this year’s Soldier fatalities (68 of the 88). Of these, motorcycles accounted for 24 fatalities, up two from last fiscal year, while four-wheeled vehicles accounted for 44 fatalities, which is a 52% increase from last fiscal year. There were also six pedestrian/non-motorist fatalities, which is up by one from FY20 for a total of 74 off-duty PMV related mishaps.
Based on those numbers the Army is down nearly two full platoons of Soldiers— it takes a long time to replace that many losses and rebuild a cohesive team.
When we break down the PMV numbers we get 40 privates through specialist (E1-E4), nine sergeants (E5), ten staff sergeants (E6), nine sergeants first class (E7), one second lieutenant (O1), one first lieutenant (O2), one captain (O3), one major (O4), and two warrant officers - one W1, and one W2.
Monetarily these 74 mishaps cost the Army nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars in injury and damage costs alone. More importantly, it cost us 74 Soldiers across 25 military occupational specialties from an AH-64D armament/electrical systems repairer to wheeled vehicle mechanics.
If we break down the details behind these mishaps, we get the following:
- 96% of the mishaps involved a male
- 57% involved a Soldier between grades E1-E4
- 55% happened over the weekend or holiday period (1800 Friday to 0559 Monday)
- 48% were between 18-24 years of age
- 23% involved speeding
- 14% are known to involve alcohol, more are suspected
Sadly, 23 (31%) of these mishaps centered around some form of indiscipline on the part of the Soldier with speeding involved in 15 of the 23, followed by alcohol and failure to wear a seat belt or a motorcycle helmet. These are all violations of known standards and failures to obey the law. Sadder is the fact these mishaps were entirely preventable.
These deaths not only affect Army readiness levels, but they also leave behind a long lasting and tragic impact on families. These Soldiers leave behind spouses, children, parents, grandparents, other family and friends. As we counsel our Soldiers about their off-duty activities, we need to get them to focus on the fact that a momentary lack of judgment, a poor decision or a failure to obey known requirements and laws doesn’t just impact them; it leaves a family without a spouse, a child without a father or mother, a parent without a son or daughter, and another Soldier without a battle buddy or friend.
The United States Army Combat Readiness Center hosts numerous tools and informational briefings to assist leaders and Soldiers in preventing these unnecessary mishaps. Please log on using the following link to access the website and take advantage of those tools and information.