Joe Torres, who returned to the U.S. in January after serving 13 months in Afghanistan, was driving with his wife on Interstate 8 to San Diego when he heard a rat-a-tat-tat that sounded like machine-gun fire.
The Army reservist ducked under the dash, peeking to see if there was any threat. His wife, who was driving, laughed. The tires had rolled over a rumble strip.
“Is that something on the road, or is that gunfire?” Torres, 36, said he asked his wife. “It wasn’t until I was realizing what I was doing, and I realized the situation that I was in, that I chuckled at myself.”
Torres, who works as an underwriter for insurer USAA in Phoenix, is among members of the armed services readjusting to road conditions in the U.S. after learning battlefield driving tactics. A study to be released today by his employer shows troops are 13 percent more likely to get in accidents where they’re at fault after serving overseas than before starting their tours of duty.
The insurer, which caters to military families, looked at data for 158,000 of its policyholders who shipped out between January 2007 and February 2010, and compared accident records for six months before they left and after they returned, according to a summary of the study. Troops often notify San Antonio-based USAA when they deploy, because the insurer allows members to reduce premiums or coverage if their vehicle is stored.
Army veterans saw the largest increase among branches of the military, with a 23 percent greater incidence of at-fault accidents. Marines were second with a 13 percent higher likelihood, followed by Navy personnel at 3 percent and members of the Air Force at 2 percent. Troops who served more than one tour of duty or had longer deployments also had an increased risk of accidents, the study found. The insurer didn’t account for whether the vets were deployed to a combat zone.
“Until the USAA report, most of the published research was limited to studies of motor fatalities,” said Erica Stern, an associate professor in the occupational therapy program at the University of Minnesota, who has studied the driving experiences of returning soldiers. “We really didn’t have any evidence that there was any sort of a rise” in at-fault accident rates.
Her own research found links between troops’ driving behavior and techniques that the military teaches to save lives in combat, such as changing lanes abruptly at tunnels and underpasses where insurgents might be waiting and speeding up to keep pace with the lead vehicle in a convoy.
Wary of Potholes
Veterans may even approach potholes differently, she said in a phone interview. It’s usually safest to stay in one’s lane. Someone who’s had experience avoiding roadside bombs in Iraq or Afghanistan may swerve around the obstruction, potentially causing a collision with another car, she said.
Of the 12 causes of accidents tracked by the insurer, “objects in the road” showed the greatest increase among policyholders returning from deployment, according to the study. Troops reverted to their pre-deployment rate of accidents after about six months, according to George Drew, an assistant vice president of underwriting at USAA.
When he returned to the U.S. in January, Torres said cars with tinted windows that rode low made him anxious, because they resembled vehicles that might have carried bombs in Afghanistan. Right after coming home, he asked his wife to do most of the driving.
“I wanted her to drive a little bit more, just so I could get acclimated,” he said in a phone interview. When he did get behind the wheel, he started by doing short errands, and then worked his way up to driving on the highway, he said.
USAA plans to use the study results to educate returning troops and their families about readjusting to U.S. roads after deployment, especially in the case of reservists and members of the National Guard who may not come back to a base where they have the structure of active-duty troops, Drew said in a phone interview. The company shared its findings with the military.
The decision to conduct the study was “absolutely not about raising prices,” he said. “It’s about safety.”
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