A WRONG TURN WITH GPS - Three people die when driver gets distracted and hits an ambulance head-on

  • Published
  • By By Tech. Sgt. Richard Caudill
  • 12th Flying Training Wing at NAS Pensacola, Fla.
In September I had the unenviable duty of briefing Air Education and Training Command leadership on an off-duty private motor vehicle fatality. The mishap? A tragedy as unnecessary as it was unfortunate. It simply should have never occurred.

An Airman from Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., was heading home during the extended Labor Day weekend to spend time with friends and family. The young Airman received his safety brief from his supervisor; filled out his AETC Form 29B and then headed home. After what I'm sure seemed like an all-too- short weekend with family, it was time to head back to base. As he drove back to his duty station, he was accompanied by three of his friends.

I'm sure the drive back was filled with laughter and people in their 20s doing what people in their 20s do on road trips. With his cell phone resting on his leg, the Airman used the global positioning system function on his cell phone to plot his route.

As he drove along at 55 mph, the phone slipped off his leg and onto the floorboard.
The Airman, just like most people who drop things in the car, attempted to retrieve it. As his eyes were no longer on the road in front of him, he lost situational awareness as to his position on the road and crossed the centerline into oncoming traffic.

At this point, the Airman had no control of the 2,000-pound "missile" flying down the wrong side of the road. The car narrowly missed a full sized sport utility vehicle. The next vehicle wasn't as lucky.

The Airman and his passengers came face to face with an ambulance. When two vehicles collide at 55 mph -- especially when one vehicle is much bigger than the other -- the outcome is never good. Both vehicles flipped after the collision, leaving a trail of debris and fluids on the road before finally skidding to
a halt.

Medics arrived on scene and began triaging the injured. The ambulance operator and his passenger were extricated and taken to a local hospital with only minor injuries.
The Airman and his passengers were not as lucky.

The impact with the ambulance crushed the driver side compartment, killing the Airman and the passenger directly behind him instantly. The front-seat passenger, who suffered severe internal and external injuries, was removed from the wreckage and taken to a local hospital where he eventually succumbed to those injuries. The backseat passenger side occupant suffered only minor lower extremity injuries.

It's amazing how quickly a seemingly routine road trip with friends can turn to tragedy.
The Airman, prior to leaving his duty station, sat down with his supervisor and was given a traffic safety brief. The supervisor covered driving defensively, cell phone use, as well as drinking and driving. I cannot speak to the thought process of the young Airman, but he may have thought he was doing everything right, because he was not talking on his cell phone while driving. But using a cell phone as a GPS while driving has its own set of risks.

So where could the mishap chain have been broken?

The use of the cell phone is the first part of the chain that if broken would have prevented the crash. Driving a car requires multi-tasking, and any distraction can take away from your ability to operate a vehicle effectively. The second opportunity to break the chain was maintaining situational awareness by the driver and his passengers. The driver has ultimate responsibility for the safety of those in the vehicle with him as well as those operating vehicles around him. Granted there were three passengers in the vehicle, and each of them had a responsibility to speak up as the vehicle began drifting into oncoming traffic, but the burden of operating a vehicle safely rests with the driver. If either of these links in the chain had been disrupted, the event never would have happened.

Why do people feel the need to use their cell phone or adjust their GPS system or CD player while driving? What could be so urgent that they let themselves get distracted and put their lives on the line? It's an epidemic; everybody from Granny to the new driver is using electronic devices while driving in some form or fashion. You see it all the time.
Why do passengers in a vehicle just sit back and go along for the ride? I'm not saying be an armchair quarterback or backseat driver; but if you see something wrong, step in and call a "knock it off." Your life is on the line too.

The Air Force lost a valuable team member that day. Worse still, family members lost a son or brother. And what's most disheartening? It was 100 percent preventable.