FORT RUCKER, Ala. - As an Army, we're getting better all the time at safety. I feel confident making that statement given final numbers from fiscal 2012: With 162 accidental fatalities, it was our third-safest year on record and our best since combat operations began more than 11 years ago.

Our leaders, Soldiers, safety professionals and Families deserve credit for this achievement. Without them, the Army Safety Program would be nothing more than regulations and tools dusted off for the occasional inspection. Putting safety into action and living it day in and day out, regardless of mission or duty status, is why we've been successful in reducing accidental fatalities, even as we remain engaged in the fight overseas.

Some challenges remain, however, and you'll find they are old and familiar foes. This article will outline what we've gotten right, what still needs work, and how we can get there from here. It's a different approach from similar articles in the past, but I truly believe we need to move away from talking about losses in terms of numbers and start a new conversation on the lives those figures actually represent.

The Big Picture

On-duty safety is a stellar success story for our Army. During the past 10 years, the accidental fatality rate -- based on a per-capita calculation of fatal accidents per thousand Soldiers -- fell 76 percent. The rate is a more practical measure of our safety standing because it takes into account fluctuations in the Soldier population, unlike straight numbers that reflect only losses during any particular year. So, even with a force that's grown and shrunk according to mission needs, the decline in on-duty accidental deaths has continued on a downward trajectory for an entire decade.

It gets even better on the ground. Since fiscal 2004, the number of Soldiers killed in on-duty ground accidents has declined 80 percent, a remarkable figure considering the constant training and operational requirements of our ongoing combat mission. That trend continued during fiscal 2012, with total on-duty fatalities dropping 27 percent from the previous year. Leading the way were decreases of 50 percent or more in Army Combat Vehicle and personnel injury-other fatalities.

As our ground forces have been drawing down overseas, aviation crews are still maintaining an accelerated OPTEMPO both operationally and in training. That pace hasn't had a profound impact on safety, however. With 12 fatalities, we closed fiscal 2012 only slightly above the previous year, when 11 Soldiers died in aviation accidents. Class A-C accidents were down 4 percent from fiscal 2011, although Class A accidents alone (involving both Soldier losses and/or total loss of aircraft) rose 40 percent during the year. Even so, fiscal 2012 helped sustain the marked improvements seen in aviation safety during the past several years.

Off duty, fatalities were down six percent from fiscal 2011. That number is somewhat deceptive, though, because it was driven largely by significant declines in PI-O losses and accidents involving "other" private motor vehicles (SUVs, trucks, vans, etc.). Accidents in sedans and on motorcycles, along with pedestrian mishaps, actually increased during the year and remained the No. 1 killer of Soldiers, whether on or off duty.

The Problems

If you were to read every accident report in the USACR/Safety Center database, one common topic would emerge: human error. Whether due to indiscipline, inattention, complacency, overconfidence or any number of factors, the simple fact is that some Soldiers make bad decisions that result in tragic outcomes. That painful truth spans aviation, ground and off-duty and affects Soldiers of all ranks and backgrounds.

Looking at vehicle trends, we keep seeing the same mistakes. Speeding, nonuse of seat belts, or reckless riding and driving invariably make an appearance in both Army Motor Vehicle and PMV accident reports. In fiscal 2012, two Soldiers died in rented vehicles while on duty overseas. Off duty, our youngest Soldiers are most at risk for a fatal PMV-4 accident, especially those at the rank of E-4. Disturbingly, however, NCOs continue to comprise a disproportionate majority of motorcycle fatalities.

Negligent discharges are another area rife with indiscipline. On-duty weapons fatalities have been under control for some time, but losses attributed to privately owned weapons increased during the last fiscal year. A Soldier pointing an "unloaded" weapon at him or herself and pulling the trigger, often after drinking, was the most common scenario in these accidents. Horseplay with weapons, even those assumed to be safe, is a grave error in judgment and perfectly illustrates the issue we have with indiscipline.

The same principle holds true in aviation. During fiscal 2012, human error was to blame in 82 percent of all recorded Class A and B mishaps. Dust landings, power management/aggressive maneuvering, and night vision goggle flights accounted for the bulk of the year's Class A and B aviation accidents. Aviators always have to be at the top of their game, but especially so in these situations, where mistakes can be brutally punishing.

Safety Culture

I firmly believe safety culture is key to reducing accidents and associated fatalities. I've talked at length about what safety culture is in my monthly columns in this magazine, so now I'll share four specific themes to consider when evaluating your unit's safety culture.

•Safety culture is not separate or distinct from organizational culture. When done right, safety is an ingrained aspect of the organization's existing culture. A unit's shared beliefs, values and attitudes all contribute to operational safety and efficiency. Soldiers are the key stakeholders in any culture, and leaders must have their buy-in to make safety pay in their formations.

•Safety must not compete with the organization's primary mission. Safety complements, not dictates, mission execution. Much of what our Army does comes with inherent risk, but in the thick of the fight, the Soldiers engaged in actual operations control how hazards are mitigated. Leaders must guide them through holistic risk assessments that account for hazards posed by the enemy, environment, materiel, and their own human error, and then give them the latitude to make smart decisions to control aggregate risk.

•Risk management is linked to readiness. Safety keeps Soldiers and equipment in fighting condition. Every loss degrades readiness, regardless of the source. Accidental fatalities are senseless because they can often be prevented, and every death leaves a lasting gap in that Soldier's unit and Family. To stay ready, Soldiers must stay safe.

•Safety must be an imperative, not a priority. An imperative is a "have to do," while priorities can shift due to competing demands.

Safety can't slide to the left or right simply because something else might seem more important. In terms of Soldier's lives, there is nothing more important than safety.

In sum, safety culture fosters an instinctive mindset in Soldiers that translates to their activities both on and off duty. Unlike our other senses, the safety instinct is grown with careful nurturing and mentoring from leaders and a disciplined environment. We've got to reach our Soldiers and let them know discipline isn't punitive - rather, it's what right looks like! Accidents aren't left up to fate, and safety is firmly in our control. As a leader, battle buddy, safety professional or Family member, you have the power to effect positive change and save even more Soldiers in the future!