By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Fort Hood Herald
Privately owned vehicle accidents are the No. 1 cause of death and serious injury to soldiers and their family members, according to information from the 1st Cavalry Division.
Though numbers of soldiers killed or injured from motorcycle accidents at Fort Hood each year were not available at press time, there were 20 fatal and 68 non-fatal motorcycle accidents Army-wide as of June 27.
The number of accidents since Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom have increased, though officials have not yet completed the necessary research to connect that increase directly to soldier deployments, said Maj. Anne Edgecomb, an Army spokeswoman. It is possible the number of soldiers who own motorcycles has increased, she said, which could explain the rise in accidents.
"But that's not to say we are using that as an excuse," she added.
One fatality yet to be added to the Army's numbers is Sgt. 1st Class Daniel D. Shand, a 38-year-old 13th Sustainment Command soldier. He was killed June 11 when his Suzuki GSXR 1000 motorcycle collided with a Ford Taurus in the 1700 block of Terrace Drive in Killeen. According to an investigation from the Killeen Police Department, the Taurus was driving from the west and turning left into the parking lot of Terrace Heights Apartments when the collision occurred. Shand was driving west at a high rate of speed and had just come up over the top of a hill, as reported in the Killeen Daily Herald.
From Jan. 1, 2004, to July 12, 2007, there were 3,566 motorcycles registered on Fort Hood and more than 33,000 currently registered at installations Army wide. Accident rates have increased proportionately, according to information from the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center.
"As the accident rate goes up, leaders must find ways to improve motorcycle safety within the Army," stated a statement from the center's U.S. Army Motorcycle Safety Guide.
The Army now requires that a six-point program developed by the center be used by all units, the guide stated. That includes that soldiers who ride motorcycles complete Motorcycle Safety Foundation-approved courses and be outfitted in personal protective equipment when riding. That equipment includes a helmet, eye protection, long-sleeved jacket, pants, full-fingered gloves and over-the-ankle footwear.
Soldiers have to follow these guidelines at all times – regardless of whether they are on or off post, on duty or off duty.
The U.S. Army Motorcycle Mentorship Program was also established in late 2005 to create "voluntary intallation-level motorcycle clubs where less-experienced and seasoned riders can create a supportive environment of responsible motorcycle riding and enjoyment," according to an Army Training and Doctrine Command safety plan.
Every Fort Hood unit has a mentorship program, said Horst M. Loechel, a post occupational safety and health specialist. As with automobiles, an unlicensed motorcycle rider must be accompanied by a licensed rider. If students fail a motorcycle-safety course at Fort Hood, their commanders are notified and they are placed in the program.
A study conducted by the Army found that from 1999 to 2004, "motorcycle mishaps" rose. More than half of the motorcycle fatalities were a result of single-vehicle accidents that "involved riders exercising poor-risk decision and judgement." The same review found that males between the ages of 18-25 years old were the major at-risk population, totaling 60 percent of the fatalities in 2003 and 2004. A majority of the soldiers in those years were males between the ages of 18-25 years old, according to Army statistics.
A June 2005 memo to Army centers across the United States from the Army's Research Development and Engineer Command stated that the Defense Secretary challenged the command to reduce the number of motorcycle accidents by at least 50 percent over a two-year period. The memo read that officials were "roughly halfway through our target period, and we need to re-emphasize our commitment to safety and accident reduction."
In response, a motorcycle-safety video was created.
Fort Hood has offered motorcycle-training courses to soldiers, family members, retirees and Defense Department civilians and contractors for years. Those include an experienced-rider course and, since 2006, a basic-rider course. From 2001-2005, 2,362 people participated in the post's experienced course. From January 2006 to May 2007, 1,106 people participated in both courses.
That popularity led post officials to approve the creation of Fort Hood's motorcycle training facility on West Fort Hood. Construction started on an existing 1,000-square-foot building on March 19, and was turned into a classroom and administrative facility. Engineers also installed a 56,000-square-foot asphalt training course.
Loechel called the new, $460,000 center a "one-stop shop" for motorcycle training.
"This facility here will do nothing but bode well for us," he said.
Though instructors are already using the training course, the building is not set to officially open until Aug. 2.
Before Fort Hood had a training facility dedicated specifically to motorcycle safety, instructors used Building 4470 as a classroom and the parking lot of Hood Stadium for the course. This sometimes caused scheduling and safety challenges because the stadium is also used for events and physical training.
The new facility will help create a safe environment where students can train at any time, said Donald Vess, the lead instructor at Fort Hood.
The facility will also encourage soldiers to step up to an even higher level when it comes to safety because it shows that their commands are interested, said Vess, who is a retired Air Force major. He called it a "motivator" for students.
Beginner riders are eligible for the two-day, 16-hour basic course that includes five hours of classroom time and 11 hours of hands-on training at the range. Fort Hood's safety office provides the motorcycles for the basic course. It is designed for those who have recently purchased or are considering purchasing a motorcycle, Vess said.
The second course is one day of training intended for riders with a minimum of six months or 3,000 miles of riding experience who want to further develop their skills, Vess said. The course includes two hours of classroom time and six hours at the range. Students must provide their own motorcycles.
Each class can accommodate 12 students and they are held throughout the week: experienced courses on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays, and basic courses on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Motorcycle regulations work like the chain of command. They are set by the Defense Department and trickle down to the Army, III Corps and then divisions and other commands. Commanders can add to the regulations, but can't take away from them. The 4th Infantry Division and 1st Cavalry Division's rear command each have their own policies that comply with the post's. Soldiers of the 4th Infantry returning from Iraq in late 2006 who already had their motorcycle licenses were required to take the advanced course again, Vess said.
Soldiers should check with their units for their specific motorcycle-safety regulations.
All soldiers who come to Fort Hood and want to drive a motorcycle have seven days from their arrival date to register for courses, which are free on post. Off-post motorcycle shops offer the same Motorcycle Safety Foundation-mandated courses, but they often cost anywhere from $160 to $300, Vess said.
He and another instructor, Joel Leaver, led a class of advanced riders on Friday at the new range. Soldiers weaved their bikes around the course, practicing emergency stopping and rounding corners, two tasks in which students often need improvement, Vess said.
He has been riding since he joined the Air Force in 1970 and has been an instructor since 1990. He, Leaver and the post's two other instructors – both women – are all experienced riders with ties to the military.
Vess, whose son was stationed at Fort Hood, likes to support soldiers and wants to help them develop the skills so they can enjoy something that for him is a "pleasure and a profession."
"Motorcycling equals an attitude adjustment," he said Friday as students buzzed by at the training course.
Riding appeals to people – not just soldiers – because of the camaraderie and sense of community it creates and because it puts riders out in the environment. Riders aren't enclosed in a vehicle, he said, they are out "in it."
Not only that, "it's just fun," Vess said.
But riders shouldn't be drawn to motorcycling simply because of the image of looking cool while roaring down the highway. Riding is fairly physically demanding and can be dangerous, Vess said, something many don't realize. Those who go out on the road on a motorcycle are eight times more likely to die in an accident than those driving an automobile, he said.
Pfc. Chris Swihart, a soldier with the "Dirty Dogs" – 2nd Platoon, 411th Military Police Company, 720th Military Police Battalion, 89th Military Police Brigade – was one of the students navigating the advanced course on Friday. He steered his 2006 Kawasaki 636 around markers and spray-painted lines, learning about brake and speed control. He doesn't usually use his back brakes, he said, so that was something he was working on that day. Swihart has been riding for four years and got his motorcycle license in 2005, he said, but this was the first time he had taken the advanced course.
The 21-year-old lives in the barracks and likes to ride his motorcycle with friends on weekends and to local lakes.
Spc. Andrew Mixon rides to relax. Riding is a different feeling than driving a car, he said.
"I don't really get in a car and go riding for fun," he joked.
Mixon, a soldier in the 4th Infantry's 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, bought a Harley-Davidson Softail Springer three weeks ago and enrolled in the advanced course to get used to his new ride. He had a Harley Sportster before and it has taken some adjusting, he said. The Softail is heavier, moves differently and has a totally different front end, the 23-year-old said.
Mixon has been riding for nearly four years and gave the Sportster to his mother when he bought the Softail. He said they would probably go riding when he goes home to Louisiana.
He likes to ride because of the freedom it gives him. He can get lost and then has to figure out how to get back.
"As long as I've got money in my pocket for gas, then I'm OK," he said with a smile as Vess nodded in agreement nearby.
Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7547