Monday, June 11, 2007

TRiPS: Protecting the troops from themselves

It's been quite a while since I was a 20-something, but I haven't entirely forgotten what it was like. I was a cautious driver - still am. I never got a speeding ticket, except for that one time when I wasn't speeding and the officer stopped the wrong car (really-- even the judge believed me). I see a lot of crazy driving when I'm out running around though, and I read an article today that helped me make more sense of it.

The story is in the Baltimore Sun, which means you'll only be able to read it by logging in on their site -- and probably only for a week or so before they start charging money. If I can find a more open source, I'll link it.

Bottom line, the style of driving that keeps you alive in a war zone can get you killed when you get home. Avoiding IEDs requires driving at high speeds down the middle of the road. Makes me wonder if I have a neighbor who goes to Iraq on weekends, but that's not the story I want to tell.

Since 2003, nearly 600 active-duty soldiers have died in the US in personally owned vehicle crashes (cars and motorcycles). Add to that the number who have left the service and deactivated National Guard and Reservists. Nobody is counting them.

The Army has implemented a program to try to help prevent motor vehicle deaths of troops who've returned from combat zones - particularly Iraq and Afghanistan. There are restrictions on driving for those most recently returned and there is the TRiPS program -- an on-line form that soldiers are required to fill out before leaving for trips over a certain distance (varies depending on their post). It's designed to encourage safer driving. I hope it works, but I have some doubts.

They have to say that they'll stop and take a break every 2 hours. I do that now, but only because I have arthritis and literally wouldn't be able to get out of my car at the end of the trip if I didn't. When I was 20-something, it was nothing for me to drive 5-6 hours without stopping. My 20-something sons can easily drive 4-6 hours without stopping if I'm not in the car with them. Safer to take a break? Doubtless. Is it going to happen? I don't think so. Making the troops lie about something that basic probably doesn't help their appreciation for the rest of the system. Maybe it will remind them to take a break when they're getting tired or losing focus - and that would be a good thing.

They have to outline their trip plan -- destination, planned stops, etc. I think that's a good idea. Nobody should head out for a trip longer than a couple of hours without SOMEONE knowing where they'll be and when they expect to be back. Someone should have a clue where to start looking for you if you don't turn up. Can they lie on this part of the form? Yes, but if they get caught, there will be some 'splainin' to do.

It asks about seatbelt use, alcohol use, types of roads, weather, etc. Again, it's a simple matter to lie, and I don't think the more experienced drivers really need this, but it's probably a good reminder for the youngest troops.

They're required to read descriptions of fatal accidents. Can't make me. Can only make me let the computer sit on that page long enough to pretend. Even if I read the descriptions, I don't believe that will happen to me -- and I'm a cautious driver. My 20-something sons still have that immortality complex that goes with being young. I can't imagine that someone who has survived combat will believe that he or she can die on the highway -- but maybe it will convince someone to wear a seat belt. OTOH, if the quality of the writing approaches Ambulance Driver's or Lawdog's, it might just get their attention.

Driver safety classes -- Properly run, I think those are probably the most useful aspect of this course. I have a friend who has taken a civilian version which included some behind-the-wheel experience in emergency situations on slick roads and under adverse circumstances. I'd like to sign up for one of those. I don't think that's what they're offering, but I hope the classes are helpful. One local post offers a 30 minute "local hazards" class that covers our state's driving laws and a longer class for all soldiers under 26.

This is a subject that concerns me deeply. My sister was left to raise 2 small children when her active-duty husband died in a single-car accident some years ago. The military has always treated her well, as befits the widow of a member of our armed forces, but that death was preventable. He was driving too fast, too late at night, without rest. He wasn't wearing a seatbelt. I expect the only break he took in his 400 mile drive was when he saw the flashing lights in his rear-view mirror. There was a blood-spattered speeding ticket found in the remains of his vehicle. My mother wrote a thank-you note to the officer who had tried to slow him down.

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