Navy, Marines Battling Fatal Off-Base Car Crashes

Frustrated Navy and Marine Corps officials are taking a hard line to try to reduce fatal traffic crashes off bases.

The Navy has tallied the most traffic fatalities in more than a decade and the Marine Corps had the heaviest losses in four years during the fiscal period ending Sept. 30, according to the Navy Safety Center in Norfolk, Va.

“We’ve got a real problem here,” said Marine Col. James F. Jamison, the center’s deputy commander. “We lost 144 sailors and Marines on the highways” last fiscal year, and about 30 percent of those crashes involved alcohol, he said.

The situation became so severe that the Navy late last year ordered mandatory sessions to review laws on seat belt use and drunken driving. Also, the sea services are considering investigating fatal accidents that occur off bases to determine their causes; local law enforcement agencies now handle such accidents.

Four sailors from the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, based in Everett, Wash., died in a single-car wreck in Seattle on Sept. 30, the last day of fiscal year 2006. Their convertible was traveling an estimated 85 mph when it hit a utility pole.

Five more fatalities have occurred since this fiscal year began Oct. 1 — three within a week involving sailors from the Norfolk-based aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman.

The deaths were felt throughout the ship, said Capt. Herman Shelanski, the Truman’s commanding officer.

“All were very upset,” Shelanski said. “They were from a close division and worked security in the ordnance department. One had a 19-year-old wife who was nine months pregnant.”

The Truman lost nobody during deployment last year, even though “some of the most dangerous jobs in the world are on the flight deck,” Shelanski added.

An analysis of crash statistics shows that the most at-risk driver is a 20-to-24-year-old petty officer and travels between midnight and 3 a.m. on a Sunday in November, according to the safety center.

A comparison of 378 sailors and Marines who died in wrecks off military bases from 2002 to 2004 concluded that 30 percent of the cases were related to alcohol, 41 percent were linked to speeding, 60 percent occurred on weekends and 67 percent occurred at night. In 51 percent of the cases, the sailors and Marines did not wear seat belts.

Jamison said the key to improving safety is teaching leaders to change the attitudes of young sailors and Marines.

“We’re much better on duty, than off duty,” he said. “We need to manage risk outside the gate.”

The Navy and Marine Corps have established several programs to help reduce wrecks.

Cell phones that aren’t handsfree are prohibited throughout the Navy’s Norfolk-based Mid-Atlantic Region, which includes 17 major shore facilities in 14 states. Violators are charged three points on their base driving record; at 12 points, driving privileges are denied.

Before holiday weekends, Strike Fighter Squadron 106 at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach considers everyone who received a recent traffic citation to be a potential fatality and orders them to pre-pack belongings to be sent to next of kin.

Sailors on the Norfolk-based cruiser USS Normandy receive cards from a local cab company for free rides to the base. Sailors also get phone-tree cards so sailors can contact someone — from the ship’s captain on down — if they are too drunk or sleepy to drive or if they have car trouble.