Article Written by Alex Gale on behalf of Convergent3D

For armed forces personnel, operating wheeled and tracked vehicles is a daily and often mundane reality of military life, but it can also be a dangerous one.  Statistics from the Defense Casualty Analysis System (DCAS) indicate that between 2006-2018, 31.9 % of all active-duty military deaths were caused by accidents.  A significant number of these deaths involved vehicles and in particular, vehicle rollovers.

According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, over a 12-year period approximately 16 % of all Non-Overseas Contingency Operation (non-OCO) fatalities involved vehicles.  More broadly, accidents between 2006-2018 have accounted for 4,827 deaths during non-OCO’s.

Fatalities caused by vehicle rollovers and accidents are not a uniquely American problem.  NATO allies face similar risks.  For example, an MoD report reveals that in 2018, 16 % of fatalities amongst British regular armed forces personnel were caused by “land transport accidents”.  

Rollovers are more likely to occur when vehicles are passing through rough terrain or being driven at night.  During operations and in training, vehicles will often be driven off road under the cover of darkness, but the lack of visibility makes it harder for drivers to spot oncoming hazards.

Concerns were raised in the US last year that the high number of military vehicle accidents were being exacerbated by a shortage of equipment and insufficient training.  Some spare parts are also in short supply.  Former Senate Budget Committee staffer Rick Berger suggested that the time troops spend maintaining old vehicles has detracted from crucial time spent training, contributing further to the likelihood of accidents.

In 2018, the House Armed Services Committee voiced similar fears and pointed out that some of the Marine Corps vehicles are decades old, such as the Assault Amphibious Vehicle (AAV), which has been in service since 1972 and the Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) which has seen service since 1983.

A broad range of vehicles used by the military are susceptible to rolling over.  In May last year, a light armored vehicle rolled over during a training exercise in Camp Pendleton, killing one marine and injuring six others.  Another incident, one month prior, tragically led to the death of Sgt. Joshua Braica when his Polaris MRZR rolled over during training.

In June 2019, Guard Staff Sgt. David W. Gallagher was killed, and three others injured when a tank experienced a rollover during training in Fort Irwin, California.

This year in March, marine Cpl. Eloiza Zavala was killed when a 7-ton Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement (MTVR) rolled over during an overseas training exercise in the United Arab Emirates.  Two other marines were injured in the incident, one seriously.  All three marines were motor vehicle operators.

Rollovers are also hazardous during operations.  British Pathfinder Capt. David Blakeley, who barely survived an incident in which his Land Rover flipped over during an operation in Iraq, wrote of his ordeal: “I passed out with the impact.  I came to sometime later with the weight of the wagon on top of me, and in total agony.”  His rescue was successful, despite challenges posed by low visibility and the prospect of enemy artillery fire. 

Others have not been so lucky.  US Army reservist Spc. Antonio I was killed in January 2020 when his vehicle rolled over during a route-clearing operation in Syria.

Stories like these are all too common.  Risk is an expected aspect of military service, but service personnel should not be losing their lives in preventable vehicle accidents, especially during training.  The families of fatally injured personnel have successfully lobbied Congress to pay closer attention to the issue.

Cary Russell, the director of the defense capabilities and management team at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has said that his team is now examining military-wide practices and policies which could prevent future rollovers and accidents.  They will also be paying close attention to the statistics and collection of relevant data.  Previously, the GAO has investigated the comparable issue of military aviation accidents.

Following a number of rollover incidents in the summer of 2019, Command Sgt. Maj Michael Grinston highlighted the issue, saying: “Army motor vehicle mishaps are the number one killer of on-duty soldiers.”  CSM Grinston cited training as one of the causes and stated that, “inadequate unit driver training programs contribute to 68 % of these mishaps”.

Individually, every fatality caused by military vehicle rollovers is a tremendous tragedy for the friends and family of the deceased service member.  Collectively, the armed forces are needlessly losing talented personnel they have invested significant time and resources on.  Hopefully these losses of life will spur the forces to make greater efforts in finding technical and doctrinal solutions which can prevent future accidents from claiming lives.