HOME FIELD DISADVANTAGE? - Study shows military members returning from deployment getting in more mishaps

  • Published
  • By Tim Barela
  • Torch Magazine
Deployed military members show "an appreciable increase" in at-fault accidents upon return to their home stations, according to a study conducted by the United Services Automobile Association, better known as USAA.

Released earlier this year, the study focused on private passenger vehicle driving experiences of USAA-member military personnel over a three-year period (from January 2007 through February 2010), which included 171,000 deployments by 158,000 members to various overseas locations.

The study revealed a 13 percent increase in at-fault accidents for troops within the first six months of returning from deployment. Further analysis highlights significant differences between military ranks, with lower ranking individuals at higher risk (see chart titled "Increase in At-Fault Accident Activity").

USAA's Returning Warriors study data does not include information about behaviors that contributed to the increase in at-fault accidents, because such information isn't captured in claims reporting. However, USAA has been working with military organizations and experts who have studied post- deployment behaviors.

"When military members survive a hostile environment, some come back home feeling bulletproof," said Dave Etrheim, occupational safety manager, Air Education and Training Command ground safety. "They feel safe here in the states and perhaps have a little bit of a letdown in their risk management. Others simply crave that adrenaline rush they got in combat, and that could lead them to riskier behaviors back home."

Etrheim said that a lot of deployed members also are able to save money while they are deployed, so when they come back home they buy new "toys," such as cars, boats or motorcycles. Playing with these new toys has a learning curve, which is further inhibited by rusty driving skills, Etrheim added.

"And, of course, some deployed members come back to their home station and want to catch up on the party scene," Etrheim said. "They feel they earned the right to let their hair down, which they have. But you can't totally throw caution to the wind."

Professor Erica Stern of the University of Minnesota also has studied the driving experiences of returning soldiers as part of a regional study and has found "carryover" driving behaviors that were potentially lifesaving in deployment but risky on civilian roadways, such as reluctance to stop at intersections or driving at inappropriate speeds. Stern surveyed service members about their most recent 30 days of American driving after returning from deployment and found that, of those surveyed, 30 percent reported being told that they drove dangerously. Half said they became anxious when other cars approached quickly or when they got boxed in on the road, while 20 percent said they were anxious when driving in general. In comparison, none of the non-deployed service members reported that they were anxious when driving in general.

Here are some other results from the USAA study:
  • Most accidents were caused by "losing control of the vehicle," according to drivers.
  • Accidents attributed by drivers to "objects in the road" increased more dramatically after deployment than any of the other 12 causes USAA tracked for the study.
  • The increase in at-fault accidents was most dramatic for younger drivers, with drivers younger than 22 experiencing a 25 percent increase in at-fault accidents, while drivers older than 29 only saw a 7.5 percent increase.
  • Drivers with three or more deployments experienced 36 percent more at-fault accidents, drivers with two deployments saw 27 percent more, and drivers with one deployment had an increase of 12 percent.
  • Individuals with longer deployments were generally more likely to be involved in at-fault accidents.
To set a common baseline for comparison, driving behavior for each member in the study was evaluated for the six months prior to deployment. The number of at-fault accidents occurring in this period was compared to the member's experience upon returning home from deployment. An accident was considered at-fault if the member's fault was determined to be greater than 50 percent. The post-deployment experience was evaluated for up to 18 months to identify when and if driving behavior returned to pre-deployment levels.

USAA was able to identify members who were deploying because their clientele generally notifies them before being deployed because the insurance company offers members several options to either reduce their premiums or coverage if their vehicle is stored. Members who did not notify USAA of deployments are not represented in the data.

A deployment was considered for the study only if the member had auto coverage for at least six months leading up to deployment and for at least six months upon returning from deployment. The 37 months of deployments provided a steady volume of departures and returns to evaluate month over month and help mitigate any seasonality effects.

USAA has shared its research with each military branch's safety center commanders and traffic safety experts.