Army and Marines Aren't Doing Enough to Prevent Deadly Vehicle Accidents, Watchdog Says

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A Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle rests on its turret and hood
A Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle rests on its turret and hood after a rollover in Iraq, November 5, 2009. (U.S. Army)

In the last decade, 123 U.S. soldiers and Marines have died in non-combat tactical vehicle accidents, most of them in the United States, because the services didn't do enough to enact their own safety measures, a new government investigation has found.

In a report written by the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, investigators described driver error, complacency and overconfidence as the most common causes for these accidents and noted that "inadequate supervision and inadequate training or experience" were also often cited as factors.

Both the Army and Marine Corps have come up with rules and training to prevent or mitigate deadly accidents, but investigators found that implementation has been "limited in scope." As a result, practices such as following speed limits, wearing seat belts or harnesses, and using ground guides differed from unit to unit.

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Other measures like assigning unit safety officers -- leaders tasked with promoting and enforcing safety rules -- were hamstrung.

"According to one senior Marine Corps safety official we spoke with, unit-level safety officers may have one hour a day to devote to safety matters," the report noted.

A 2019 Marine Corps survey cited in the report showed that 45% of Marines "said that they were not aware that their unit had a safety officer."

Between 2010 and 2019, the two branches had a total of 3,753 tactical vehicle accidents. The report focused mainly on 342 of those that were severe enough to cause more than $500,000 in damage or serious injuries. Most of these serious accidents took place in the U.S., during the day, and on roads or parking lots, the report said.

Investigators found that Army Strykers, Marine Light Armored Vehicles, and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles used by both services were the most frequently involved in accidents.

Rollovers were by far the deadliest kind of accident, the report found. Despite being associated with a quarter of the accidents, they accounted for 63% of the deaths in the last decade.

First Lt. H. Conor McDowell, a 24-year-old platoon commander, was killed in a May 2019 training exercise at Camp Pendleton, California. The lieutenant was standing in one of his vehicle's turrets, guiding his driver, and looking for mock enemy fighters when the 12-ton vehicle drove into a grass-covered ditch. The vehicle rolled, pinning and killing McDowell as it flipped.

After the incident, Michael McDowell, Conor's father; his wife; and his son's fiancée lobbied members of Congress to dig into the troubling trend of military rollover deaths.

This report was mandated by Congress following the family's push for answers and accountability.

In an email, Michael McDowell called the GAO report "a starting point" but said its recommendations, including more robust training and empowering vehicle commanders, need to "be strengthened, improved, and added to."

Both the Army and the Marine Corps agreed with the report's recommendations.

"From initial design and acquisition, to recruiting and training, and information sharing with our DoD partners, we are making every effort to reduce our mishap rate," Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Andrew Wood said in a statement.

"The Army is in the process of implementing the recommendations and has already implemented two in our ongoing effort to prevent loss and sustain combat readiness," Army spokesman Jason Waggoner said in a statement.

However, McDowell also noted that, aside from training, many vehicles lack any technology to help prevent rollovers.

"The majority of Humvees in the States -- there are 95,000 of these in the US military -- most of them do not have anti-lock brakes or electronic stability controls or other rollover mitigation, which we've had in our cars for decades," he explained to Military.com. "Why were we cutting corners here?"

McDowell also said that the age of some of the vehicles plays a role in rollover deaths. He cited the July 2019 mishap in which eight Marines and one sailor were killed when their amphibious assault vehicle filled with water and sank off the coast of California as an example. The vehicle was 36 years old, built 18 years before the youngest Marine who died in the incident was born.

For McDowell, the report is not the end of his work on the issue of combat vehicle safety and reform.

"The next objective, apart from all the safety reforms ... is to say, 'Wait a minute, the leadership has to pay for this. They're not getting off scot-free,'" he said.

"It comes down to two specific things; one is acceptance of responsibility. The second is accountability, which means you can get fired."

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: Fallen Troops' Families Demand Action After Spate of Military Vehicle Rollover Deaths

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