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Breaking the Chain

Breaking the Chain
Detachment 51, Operational Support Airlift
Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.

It was an average summer day in August 2008. I was halfway through my shift when the State Patrol Communications Center sent notice of a head-on collision involving injuries on a heavily traveled highway in northeastern Washington state. As a state trooper with the Washington State Patrol, I was quite familiar with the dangers associated with this two-lane road. I advised SPCC that I was en route and proceeded to the scene with my lights and siren going.

As I neared the scene, both north and southbound traffic was backed up nearly a quarter of a mile. Fire and emergency medical personnel preceded me to the scene and were working to extricate the driver of a small passenger car. The crash scene was like many I had seen before. Physical evidence showed the small passenger car was traveling north and then left the roadway to the right. The driver appeared to have overcorrected and crossed into the southbound lane, colliding with a full-size SUV. Fortunately, the SUV’s driver and passenger were wearing their seat belts and their air bags deployed. Both suffered only minor injuries.  

The relevance of this story begins when I approached the small passenger car. Fire personnel had used the Jaws of Life to open the driver-side door and were placing the driver onto a backboard. The driver appeared conscious and alert. His head was bleeding and he had a suspected broken wrist. The driver’s hair was cut short and he displayed an obvious military bearing. I immediately knelt beside his head and asked, “Are you a Soldier?” He answered with a shaken, “Yes, sir.”As I spoke to him, I noticed the telltale signs of impairment (bloodshot, watery eyes; slurred speech; and a strong odor of intoxicants). I asked the Soldier how much he had to drink. Before responding, he began to sob and said, “I’m sorry, sir.”  

As medics continued to prepare him for transport, the Soldier repeatedly inquired if the other people were OK. I reassured him of their status, trying to provide some relief. I continued my investigation, asking the Soldier questions about the vehicle he was driving, his license status and general inquiries as to what he remembered happening. All the while I was slipping in questions about his military service.

What I found out was deeply saddening. The Soldier was a National Guardsman recently back from a tour in Iraq. Prior to deploying, he was cited for a violation which involved a collision in a neighboring state. The Soldier failed to respond to the minor infraction, resulting in the suspension of his license. Even upon return from Iraq, the Soldier never contacted the court to adjudicate the matter. In the meantime, the Soldier stated he had resorted to alcohol as a means to escape some personal issues.

The car he was driving belonged his girlfriend’s father. Upon talking with the owner, he stated he never gave permission for the Soldier to operate the car, which was not insured. As far as the collision details, the Soldier stated he dozed off, resulting in the vehicle leaving the roadway. As the vehicle rolled across the rumble strips, the Soldier said he woke up and overcorrected. The vehicle did not have air bags, and the force of the collision resulted in a breach of the occupant area. The steering wheel was forced into his chest as the left-front part of the vehicle crumpled inward. It was clear to me that wearing a seat belt saved his life.

The Soldier admitted he had been drinking most of the day and should not have driven the car. A portable breath test device indicated his blood alcohol concentration was twice the legal limit of .08. Based on all the facts, the Soldier was placed under arrest for driving under the influence, driving with a suspended license and operating a motor vehicle without liability insurance. A legal blood draw was performed in the back of the ambulance. Prior to leaving, the Soldier shook my hand and said, “I’m really sorry, sir.”

This was not the first time I had to enforce serious traffic offenses on military personnel.  But for some reason, this young Soldier made a lasting impression on me. My understanding of accidents is simple. Each one is a caused occurrence — a chain of events leading to an end result. From beginning to end, the events are connected like links in a chain. If, at any time, a link is broken, the accident is prevented. Just as in this case, if any of the sequence (links) of events had been broken, this Soldier would not be facing legal and medical problems.

As a graduate of the Aviation Safety Officer Course, I found myself applying the steps of risk management to this case. What if this Soldier had identified the hazards of driving drunk? What if he’d assessed the dangers he posed to himself and other motorists? What if he’d thought about the legal trouble he’d get into driving on a suspended license in an uninsured car? If he had, maybe he wouldn’t have found himself being cut out of a wreck while asking me if the people in the other car were all right.

Fortunately, no one died and the Soldier had plenty of time to do the final step of risk management — supervise and evaluate — while recovering from injuries and facing legal actions. What kind of grade do you think he gave himself?

How about you? What kind of grade will you get the next time you’re drinking and thinking about getting behind the wheel? Why not avoid this Soldier’s mistakes and manage the hazards with risk management before they end up managing you.

  • 1 July 2014
  • Author: Army Safety
  • Number of views: 13023
  • Comments: 0