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Watchdog report faults military for fatal vehicle accidents

The Government Accountability Office analyzed Army and Marine Corps training accidents involving tactical vehicles from 2010 through 2019.
US military convoys on their way to Poland
A convoy of U.S. Army vehicles drives over a road in the direction of Clausewitz barracks, Germany, on Oct. 17, 2019.Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert / Picture Alliance via Getty Images

A range of shortcomings, including lack of training and inconsistent oversight, contributed to many of the fatal training accidents involving military combat vehicles in the past decade, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

The GAO analyzed Army and Marine Corps training accidents involving tactical vehicles from 2010 through 2019. It found the highest number of deaths in vehicle accidents in 2010, when 23 service members were killed. Sixteen were killed in 2019, the second-deadliest year.

In all, there were 3,753 noncombat accidents resulting in 123 service member deaths, according to the report.

“Driver inattentiveness, lapses in supervision, and lack of training were among the most common causes” of many of the crashes, the GAO report said.

The study found that at times drivers and personnel at training areas failed to identify and communicate potential safety risks.

Both the Army and the Marine Corps have procedures in place to prevent tactical vehicle accidents, but GAO investigators found that soldiers and Marines did not always follow them.

“Units did not consistently implement these practices,” the report said.

Vehicle commanders and safety officers can be responsible for enforcing these procedures, but they sometimes lack training and means to enforce them, according to the study.

Drivers themselves also lacked training at times. The GAO, a nonpartisan congressional agency that audits federal programs, found that programs to train drivers had shortcomings and discrepancies that hindered development of drivers’ skills.

Accidents involving a vehicle rollover proved among the most fatal. Nearly 25 percent of all accidents included a vehicle rollover, but 63 percent of accidents resulting in the death of a military member involved one.

Democrats in the House and Senate requested that the GAO study deadly tactical vehicle accidents in summer 2019 after a training accident at Camp Pendleton, in California, that killed Marine 1st Lt. Hugh Conor McDowell. During a two-month span that year, six service members were killed and nine more were injured in accidents involving military tactical vehicles.

“Right now, a cascading series of failures within the military is causing the U.S. to lose more service members in preventable training accidents than in combat,” Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., who was among the lawmakers to request the study, said in a statement. “The report that GAO released today highlights a troubling pattern of training shortfalls and supervision lapses that have led to a concerning rise in preventable training deaths throughout the military.”

In a statement, spokesperson Maj. Charlie Dietz said the Pentagon appreciated the GAO's recommendations and that the Defense Department's traffic safety program "is currently being revised to strengthen requirements for safety technologies within the Department’s tactical-type vehicles."

Said Dietz, "The Department is also working to prevent these training mishaps through prescribing and enforcing military driver training and licensing in accordance with statutory responsibilities through Military Department policies, regulations, and institutional training, career development, and periodic refresher training."

GAO investigators recommended nine changes to resolve the shortcomings. The Army and Marine Corps vehicle commanders should have more defined roles, including being more responsible for risk management, the report said. The investigators also determined that more personnel should be assigned to vehicle safety in some cases, and in others, commanders need to lighten their workloads and provide more resources to unit safety personnel.

On training shortfalls, the GAO recommended more oversight in licensing and more follow-up training for drivers, including specific performance criteria and measurable standards that must be met to ensure driver skills and experience are sufficient.

Finally, personnel at training areas need to be more hands-on in identifying and communicating hazards and safety concerns to units training there, the report found.

“The military must fully implement each of the recommendations that are outlined in this report to mitigate further, preventable loss of life,” Garamendi wrote.

Frank Thorp V and Laura Strickler contributed.