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Off-duty deaths on the rise

Top safety officer: Programs already in place fleetwide to keep sailors safe

Jan. 2, 2013 - 10:00AM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 2, 2013 - 10:00AM  |  
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Alan Magnes, a traffic safety instructor, teaches a motorcycle safety course to sailors assigned to Naval Station Mayport, Fla. Twenty sailors died in motorcycle-related mishaps in fiscal year 2012, up from 16 the year before. (MC2 Marcus Stanley / Navy)

Programs to know

Some key Navy safety offerings and where to find them:
Travel Risk Planning System: TRiPS can be accessed via Navy Knowledge Online; sailors can email NAVSAFECEN.TRiPS@navy.mil with access problems or questions.
Motorcycle courses: Read about the programs, enroll in classes and fill out the required motorcycle census at www.navymotorcyclerider.com.
Winter campaign: The Naval Safety Center's winter safety efforts — addressing everything from distracted driving to snowboarding — are available through a link on the center's website, www.safetycenter.navy.mil.

Mishaps are measured in lives and money. And by those standards, the Navy's headed in the wrong direction.

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Mishaps are measured in lives and money. And by those standards, the Navy's headed in the wrong direction.

The Navy lost 59 sailors in non-combat-related deaths in fiscal year 2012, and the largest losses happened off-duty. Those mishaps drove up the death toll and reversed a three-year downward trend in fatalities.

New risks combined with persistent issues are causing safety officials concern. Here are the foremost findings that have them worried:

• Seven pedestrians were struck and killed by vehicles this year — the most in 25 years.

• Most of the motorcyclists killed this year had not completed mandatory safety courses.

• Car and truck accidents killed 15 this year, nearly doubling last year's total.

"It was very clearly in the motorcycle, automobile and pedestrian/bike categories where we went in the wrong direction," said Rear Adm. Brian Prindle, head of the Naval Safety Center, in a recent interview. "Off-duty, clearly the fatalities were not where we want it to be."

On-duty fatalities are dwarfed by those off-duty. Of the 59 deaths last fiscal year, a period that runs from October through September, only 10 took place on-duty. The greatest risk, statistics show, centers on off-duty motorcycle riders, but officials say every sailor should be aware of off-duty dangers.

Motorcycle mishaps

Motorcycle deaths rose this past year — 20 fatalities, the worst since 33 in 2008. And it's not just the rise that concerns officials — it's the chances that are missed.

Year after year, a stubbornly high portion of sailors killed in motorcycle wrecks hadn't finished mandatory motorcycle training, which includes the basic course and an extra class for those riding sport bikes. If all of the Navy's roughly 21,000 motorcycle riders completed this training, officials believe they could cut the death toll in half.

Twelve of the 20 riders killed last year didn't finish their courses, Prindle said in the Nov. 30 interview.

"If those 12 individuals who hadn't completed all their training had completed their training, my guess is, statistically speaking, that nine or maybe 10 of them would still be alive," he said. "Because what we see is … the risk of an individual being in a mishap on a motorcycle after they complete their training goes down dramatically."

(Page 2 of 3)

Taking these classes is a matter of life and death. Sailors need to attend them, and their chain of command needs to ensure they have the time to do it, said Prindle, emphasizing the need for engaged motorcycle representatives at every command to help mentor younger riders.

The biggest danger remains sport bikes, a class of high-performance motorcycles with lightning-fast acceleration and speeds that top 160 miles per hour. Sport bike riders made up more than half of the fiscal 2012 casualties, Prindle said.

These machines are often too much bike for a new rider. And the sport bike class can only go so far.

"Unfortunately we can't give you 10 years worth of experience in a two-day sport bike class," Prindle said. "So just recognize that even though you've completed that, there's a lot of nuance about riding a sport bike that you're just not going to get until you gradually get some experience."

Unlike other vehicle accidents, most motorcycle crashes occur during the day. The riders are predominantly men who are out on a joyride over the weekend, and rider error is normally to blame. Half of this year's deaths were single-vehicle mishaps, where the rider was the only driver involved.

"They're just, quite frankly, driving beyond their skill level in many cases," Prindle said. "It doesn't take much as you're going around a curve or something to lose control, and as you as you leave the bike, you're at the mercy of gravity."

Car and pedestrian deaths

Car and truck deaths also spiked last year. Fifteen sailors were killed in fiscal 2012, nearly double the eight from the year before.

Officials say that figure isn't as bad as it appears. Last year's figure was a record low, Prindle said. There were 50 off-duty vehicle deaths in 2008 — a figure that dropped every year until 2012.

Prindle also cited positive trends from 2012 statistics: More sailors are wearing seat belts, and fewer are driving drunk.

What are the biggest problems?

"Fatigue and distraction," said Prindle, noting this mirrors national trends. Smartphones are drawing eyes away from the road. And falling asleep at the wheel continues to be a killer.

(Page 3 of 3)

Most of these accidents occur late on weekend nights, usually between midnight and 4 a.m. The victims are generally men and between 23 and 25, Prindle said.

One of the Navy's safety programs still has a perfect record.

The service's road trip advisory system, known as TRiPS, assesses the risks of a long journey based on several variables — distance, time span, number of drivers, etc. — with the results reviewed by the user and his chain of command. So far, no TRiPS user has been killed in a car accident on their road trip, the Naval Safety Center said.

But officials say expanding this program won't help drive down the number of accidents, many of which occur locally.

Prindle said commands and regions need to do more to make sure sailors know the risks of their area, such as freeways known for aggressive drivers or roadways and bridges susceptible to ice.

"Recognizing that every year there's a significant influx and outflow of people into the regions, we can probably do a better job of making sure that people who've never been in Norfolk before know what the risks are and what the traffic environment is like," Prindle said.

And there's reason for concern even if you don't own a car or a bike.

The force lost seven sailors walking near the road last year — more than triple last year's toll. Most were walking alone, late at night on the weekend. Most weren't drunk, but they were unaware of the dangers inherent to their situation, namely tired or drunk drivers.

In some cases, these sailors were "walking along, minding their own business, but not aware of the fact that they're in close proximity to the road and the drivers of those vehicles may be impaired," Prindle said.

Walking alone at night is often dangerous; safety leaders say sailors should take a buddy. But the first step is recognizing the danger.

"There's really no reason that you should be out walking by yourself at one or two in the morning," Prindle said.

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