A matter of life and death

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. -- In fiscal year 2009, the families of 47 Airmen answered their doors to find commanders, first sergeants and chaplains dressed in service dress, informing them they would no longer see their loved ones alive. These Airmen didn't die on the front lines of the battlefield. They died in friendly neighborhoods around the world. They died by accident.

Car accident fatalities counted for more than eight times the amount of Airmen the Air Force lost that same year in aviation mishaps including those deployed in support of Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom.

"Airmen have to be aware of the risk they assume while off-duty, mitigate that risk, and don't take on anymore than their fellow Airmen, or their families, can handle," said Maj. Gen. Fred Roggero, Air Force chief of safety. "Every wingman is accountable for their actions, and they shouldn't make their friends and family pay for their poor judgment."

In a memorandum for Air Force personnel dated Oct. 8, 2009, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley and Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Norton Schwartz said, "Our goal from this point on is zero Airmen lost in preventable private motor vehicle mishaps."

The Air Force goes through great pains to remind Airmen repeatedly to wear their seat belts. There are briefings, statistics, pictures and first-hand stories from crash survivors. So, if the subject of seat belt and vehicle safety is briefed so much and Airmen around the world claim to understand the message, then why is the highest ranking military officer in the Department of the Air Force sending out a memo on the subject? Because, of the 47 people who were killed in traffic accidents last fiscal year, 68 percent of those were in non-compliance with seat belt usage and speed limit laws.

"When you are in a crash and not buckled up, two major impacts occur," said 2d Bomb Wing ground safety manager, Richard Knowles. "You impact the interior of the vehicle and then your internal organs impact with the other organs and your skeletal system once you've stopped moving. You are also running the risk of a third impact if you are not belted: being thrown from the vehicle. This increases your likelihood of sustaining serious injuries even further. The consequence here is that you could end up disabled for life or even die in the crash."

Air Force Instruction 91-20 dated May 22, 2007 states that all personnel operating or riding in motor vehicles, shall wear installed safety belts as prescribed by the manufacturer. This is the Air Force directive for anyone riding in a motor vehicle on-base as well as active-duty servicemembers and on-duty civilians off base.

"Operating a vehicle on Barksdale Air Force Base without proper use of seat belts could result in a 30-day base driving suspension," says Lt. Col. Aaron Ullman, 2d BW chief of safety. "Second offense could result in a 60-day suspension and third offense could result in one-year revocation in any 18-month time period. If the offender is a passenger, the passenger will receive the suspension or revocation and points assessed to their base driving record, not the driver."

Not only is it an Air Force directive to wear your seat belt on base, it's also the law in the state of Louisiana. If a driver is caught not wearing a seat belt in Louisiana, a ticket will be issued, a fine of $25 will be handed out and points will be added to the license of the driver. However, there are some extenuating circumstances where not wearing a seat belt is acceptable.

"Private motor vehicles manufactured prior to 1966 without seat belts will not require seat belt installation unless mandated by applicable host nation, state or territory laws," said Mr. Knowles. "Occupants are required to wear seat belts if they were originally installed by the manufacturer in the vehicle."

More than 35,000 people die in motor vehicle crashes each about. About 50 percent of whom could be saved if safety belts were worn. In 2008, 913 people were killed in motor vehicle accidents in the state of Louisiana alone. Of those 913 people killed, 64 percent were not wearing a seat belt. Because of these high statistics, Barksdale Security Forces and the Safety Office are working together to keep Airmen safe.

"Air Force Global Strike Command supplement to AFI 91-207 strongly encourages safety offices to partner with security forces to periodically conduct no-notice random seat belt checks," said Mr. Knowles. "We do this on a monthly basis. Additionally, Colonel Basham has a Seatbelt Utilization Inspection Policy for 2d BW organizations. The ground safety office performs an additional check randomly each month in addition to our partnership with security forces. Also, each unit safety representative is required to perform a minimum of two seat belt inspections within their unit's duty area and report the results to 2d BW Safety office."

A 2009 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study estimates more than 1,600 lives could be saved and 22,000 injuries prevented if seat belt use was 90 percent in every state. In February 2010, Barksdale's number of seat belt users was only 98.1 percent.