Hard Habit to Break
RALPH A. STUCK
3rd Brigade Combat Team,
101st Airborne Division (Air Assault)
Fort Campbell, Kentucky
Without thinking, I found myself about to run a red light. For a moment, I thought I was back in Iraq. It took me a second to remember I wasn’t — that I was now home in the states. My wife, who was sitting next to me, said, “What are you doing? Are you nuts? You’re about to cause an accident!” Looking in my rearview mirror, I noticed a police car. I’d only been back from Iraq for 24 hours and was about to cause an accident and get a ticket.
What had happened? Subconsciously, I was still using the driving habits I’d adopted while in Iraq. You see, in Iraq I was constantly concerned about the dangers posed by snipers, rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices. While driving in Iraq, I ignored red lights, speed limits, yield signs and road caution signs. And you can imagine that my traffic skills had gotten a bit rusty.
When I got back, I’d forgotten that these driving habits would earn me a traffic ticket from local law enforcement. In Iraq, getting a ticket wasn’t so bad — at least when compared to having someone sniping at you or detonating an IED next to your vehicle. For example, when a convoy of vehicles entered an intersection in Iraq — regardless if there were traffic lights — nobody stopped. One vehicle would block traffic so the convoy could keep rolling through. Drivers would never allow themselves to be boxed in and trapped in a line of vehicles stopped at an intersection.
As for speed limits … there weren’t any. Convoy speeds were based upon the threat and weather conditions. Convoys simply passed slower-moving traffic and kept the mission rolling. A swift-moving convoy was safer than a slowed or stopped one.
Getting back to my experience with the red light, it scared me to realize that I, of all people, had made this mistake. After all, wasn’t I the one who’d talked to brigade leadership about Soldiers driving safely when they left Iraq and convoyed into Kuwait? Before any movement into Kuwait, convoy commanders warned their Soldiers about the driving habits they’d formed in Iraq. Leaders stressed that Soldiers would be held accountable for their actions while driving. It was no longer a matter of driving to survive, but rather, driving defensively and being safe.
So there I was, breaking my own rules — and I was the safety guy! I’d sold brigade leaders on the importance of breaking these driving habits by using the example of the Soldier who returned from Europe and picked up his car at the port. You know what happens next. He gets on the interstate and goes 95 mph because he still thinks he’s driving on the autobahn in Germany. The wake-up call is often a police car’s flashing lights and siren. As the Soldier sits in his car, the officer looks at him and asks, “What race do you think you’re in?” Now I was the one with the flashing lights in the rearview mirror.
The lesson learned? As Soldiers redeploy, it’s critical they receive classes on driving safety and accident prevention. They need to be reacquainted with traffic laws and safe driving skills so they can break the habits they acquired while deployed. Time and mission permitting, having Soldiers review a copy of their state’s driving handbook can help them identify any bad habits they’ve formed. To keep their Soldiers safe, leaders should cover — at a minimum — the following topics:
- Identifying bad driving habits
- Safe driving skills/defensive driving
- Dealing with road rage
- DUI prevention
- Traffic laws and fines
- Vehicle insurance and the increased costs for unsafe drivers
- Soldiers’ accountability to commanders for traffic law violations
Turning off bad habits is hard to do. By providing safe driving briefings, identifying high-risk Soldiers and helping them break their bad habits, leaders can prevent accidents. Why bring Soldiers home from combat only to lose them to an avoidable vehicle accident?