CAPT. ADAM ALIG
201st Regional Support Group
Georgia Army National Guard
Clay National Guard Center
It was the end of the workday and I was wrapping up my last task in the safety office. Suddenly, a Soldier busted through the door to inform me they just experienced a driver training mishap. I asked the Soldier for the details and, boy, was I surprised. Thankfully, the mishap didn’t involve a tactical or Government Services Administration vehicle. It actually occurred on one of my unit’s Polaris all-terrain vehicles (ATV), which was the last thing I would have imagined.
For those unfamiliar with the Polaris ATV, it’s a small, four-wheeled vehicle that can seat two or four Soldiers, depending on the configuration. The vehicle’s safety features include a front bumper, seat belts and a roll cage. My unit uses these vehicles for our defense support of civilian authorities (DSCA) and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) training exercises to transport Soldiers wearing hazardous materials (HAZMAT) suits. They are a tremendous asset, especially when attempting to navigate tough or tight terrain. However, just like tactical vehicles, they do have the potential to roll over.
The Soldier told me the mishap occurred in a wooded area on the other side of the base where the unit conducts the off-road portion of Polaris driver training. The area has rolling hills, rocks, low-hanging tree branches and a few sharp turns along the training trail. The unit’s newest Soldier was following an instructor along the course. When the Soldier’s Polaris approached the second turn too quickly, the vehicle’s back end slid out, causing him to lose control and flip into the wood line. The vehicle came to rest on its roof.
The lead and trail vehicles both stopped to assist, and the Soldiers held up the Polaris so the driver and passenger could exit safely. They were both shaken up a bit and suffered some minor bruising and cuts. Fortunately, they were wearing seat belts and the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). The vehicle sustained minor cosmetic damage to the front bumper and cage. After everyone was safe, training was suspended to review the mishap.
This mishap made me reflect on our programs and driving culture from start to finish. I reviewed the current driver training program along with our standard operating procedures (SOPs). For driver training, all appropriate safety steps were taken, as far as training and licensing were concerned. The instructor and students understood the safety considerations and how hazards were to be mitigated with appropriate PPE in the form of Kevlar helmets, eye protection, gloves, boots and the duty uniform. The instructor made the right call by suspending training for the day and followed the SOP by notifying me.
As the unit safety officer, I’m aware of Army mishap trends such as Soldiers getting into accidents with speed being a factor. As leaders, we can preach all day long about safe driving, but is it really getting through to all of our Soldiers? In this case it did, with the exception of speed. Leaders, regardless of rank, need to ensure our Soldiers know the importance of following correct speed limits and not driving Army vehicles like they would their private motor vehicles. Likewise, those conducting the driver training must ensure their expertise does not overwhelm an inexperienced Soldier, which could allow a mishap to occur.
On and off duty, we are seeing a rise in speed-related mishaps. In today’s society, everything is here one minute and gone the next, which creates what I call a “speed culture.” With this speed culture, perhaps civilians and Soldiers feel the need to rush out of fear they will miss out on something. As leaders and individual Soldiers, we must realize that even with all the appropriate safety measures, speed is an enemy to our Army. The old saying, “Smooth is fast and fast is smooth,” will not help our force if speed takes you out of the fight. Understand that combat readiness is key, but remember we must become ready by being safe and recognizing hazards.
In order to maintain safety, ensure you recognize the hazards associated with the mission or task you are conducting. Have the appropriate PPE that will help mitigate those hazards, which allows you to mitigate the overall risk. Just remember, however, that even with all the appropriate controls in place, a mishap can still potentially occur. The responsibility falls on the lowest- to highest-ranking Soldiers taking part in the mission to ensure we maintain our safety situational awareness. If we fail to maintain that awareness, a mishap like this Polaris rollover has the potential to be more severe and degrade our readiness.
Did You Know?
Tactical motor vehicle mishaps are the greatest on-duty killer of the Army’s ground forces. Annual statistics show more Soldiers die in these incidents than any other single category of on-duty ground mishaps. Quite simply, driving — not live-fire ranges, mass tactical parachute operations or other high-risk missions — is the deadliest hazard most Soldiers face daily.
The U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center recently conducted a deep-dive analysis of tactical vehicle mishaps since the beginning of fiscal 2015. The data revealed a "third-quarter spike" showing a sharp increase in tactical vehicle mishaps throughout spring and early summer, but particularly during May and June. In effect, nearly one-third of the Army’s tactical vehicle mishaps are occurring over a mere 16 percent of the fiscal calendar, year after year.
The 3rd-Quarter Tactical Vehicle Spike campaign is dedicated to helping commanders and Soldiers stop these mishaps in not only 2021, but years to come. A wealth of information based on lessons learned from our study and recent USACRC mishap investigations, along with best practices and tools shown to mitigate risk across the force, can be found at https://safety.army.mil/MEDIA/3rd-Quarter-Tactical-Vehicle-Spike-Campaign.