Fatal Vehicle Accidents Decline in Military; Motorcycles Remain Dangerous

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By Brenda L. Mooney

SILVER SPRING, MD — More military servicemembers died in the last four years from war wounds and suicide than motor vehicle accidents (MVA).

That might not sound like good news, but it actually represents a significant decline in fatal transportation accidents. Through 2009, MVAs accounted for nearly one-third of U.S. military deaths annually and were the leading non-war-related cause of death among U.S. military personnel, according to a report late last year in Medical Surveillance Monthly Report. 1

All of the news was not positive, however. Motorcycle accidents are making up an increasingly high percentage of motor vehicle accidents that take the lives of servicemembers. From 1999 to 2012, 4,479 MVA-related deaths occurred among members of the U.S. armed forces. More than one-fourth of those, 1,134, were motorcycle accidents.

Army 1st Lt. Michael J. Fijman, Army 344th Military Intelligence Battalion Safety Officer at Goodfellow Air Force Base, TX, perform a mandatory maintenance check on his motorcycle before riding it. This maintenance checklist is one of the ways to practice safety awareness when riding motorcycles. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Breonna Fields

Army 1st Lt. Michael J. Fijman, Army 344th Military Intelligence Battalion Safety Officer at Goodfellow Air Force Base, TX, perform a mandatory maintenance check on his motorcycle before riding it. This maintenance checklist is one of the ways to practice safety awareness when riding motorcycles. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Breonna Fields.

Similar trends have been documented among active-duty and reserve troops, according to the publication from the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center.

During the 14-year surveillance period, the annual number, 355, and rate, 25.1 per 100,000 person-years, of MVA-related deaths peaked in 2004 for active component servicemembers.

Following a steady downward trend, motor vehicle deaths among active-duty military personnel fell in 2012 to 184, with the rate also declining to 13.2 per 100,000 person-years — the lowest of the entire period.

For members of the reserve component, the annual number of motor vehicle deaths peaked in 2005 at 86,  but the number in 2012 — 22 — was the lowest of the period.

For that group, however, the risk of fatal motorcycle accidents was especially great. In fact, the 90 motorcycle accidents in 2012 — a rate of death of 6.5 per 100,000 person-years — almost equaled all other types of motor vehicle accidents combined, 94 with a rate of death of 6.7 per 100,000 person-years.

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“Dramatic declines in the numbers and rates of non-motorcycle-related MVA deaths were responsible for the fall in rates for all MVA-related deaths,” the authors note. “For the entire 14-year surveillance period, slightly over 25% of all motor vehicle-related deaths were due to motorcycle accidents among active and reserve component service members combined. However, as a result of the decline in non-motorcycle-related MVA deaths since 2005, motorcycle-related deaths have become an increasingly higher proportion of all MVA related deaths in the latter part of the surveillance period.”

For motorcycle accidents, according to the report, the highest numbers were among those aged 20-24 years, males, and white, non-Hispanics, with the greatest rates for active-duty personnel in Marines (rate: 6.9 per 100,000 person-years), those aged 20-24 years (rate: 6.4 per 100,000 person-years), and black, non-Hispanics (rate: 6.8 per 100,000 person-years).

The MSMR article noted that fatal motor vehicle accidents tend to peak in the warmer months of the year. It also identified several factors that make some servicemembers more likely to be killed in motor vehicle accidents than others, including:

  • relative youth;
  • single marital status;
  • male gender, and
  • highest educational level of high-school completion.
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“Compared to their older counterparts, younger servicemembers more commonly take risks while driving (e.g., speeding, inconsistent use of seat belts, driving while intoxicated) or ride motorcycles,” the article pointed out.

Study authors cited safe driving campaigns within all of the services as a factor helping to decrease motor vehicle deaths. For example, the Army requires all soldiers to undergo the Army Traffic Safety Training Program, including the mandatory Progressive Motorcycle Program for soldiers who own motorcycles.

“Apart from the usual messaging on the avoidance of, or moderate consumption of alcohol before driving, wearing seat belts or helmets as appropriate, and defensive driving, these safety training programs extend to cover such topics as the proper installation and use of child safety seats and maintaining safe personal motor vehicles in order to safeguard the lives of family members and other passengers,” the article states.

An accompanying editorial comment applauds “encouraging improvements within the U.S. military population,” when it comes to fatal motor vehicle accidents but points to some difficult issues that remain.

“The underlying or main challenges in reducing motorcycle-related fatalities among servicemembers remain unclear,” according to the commentary. “By all appearances, the requisite policies and programs are in place, and have been made applicable to all servicemembers meeting the criteria (i.e., those who own or intend to own a motorcycle). Furthermore, the safety training programs incorporate motorcycle maintenance tips and advice on protective clothing, and some even go so far as to provide firsthand testimonials from servicemembers who have been involved in accidents but somehow survived. Perhaps greater efforts need to be made to encourage those most at risk — young servicemembers — to appreciate their own vulnerability with respect to motorcycle crashes and to modify their riding behaviors accordingly.”

1 Update: Motor Vehicle-related Deaths, Active and Reserve Components, U.S. Armed Forces, 1999-2012. MSMR. 20(11):10-14.

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