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CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — More than 65 percent of the 632 private-vehicle accidents involving Marines on Okinawa in 2003 were caused by enlisted members the rank of corporal or below, said Gunnery Sgt. Mario Marin.

To try to reduce that number and keep the streets safe, Camp Foster’s Licensing Branch has started a new five-day driving course, said Marin, the chief driving instructor. Now, all Marines 25 or younger, and at ranks of E-4 or below, must attend and pass the five-day course before they’re allowed to own or operate a privately owned vehicle. Currently, the 5,500 E-4s and below on the island may own vehicles only if given permission by their commanding officers.

The program, called the Commanding General’s Five-Day Driver’s Improvement Course, was the idea of Lt. Gen. Wallace Gregson, former 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force commanding general.

Marin said the first three days of the course are spent in the classroom. Defensive driving is pushed constantly, he said, and other topics such as drinking and driving and driving while fatigued also are covered. Slide-show presentations with graphic photos of vehicle accidents help instructors get their point across, he said.

Goggles that simulate the blurred vision of a drunk driver also are used in the class, Marin said.

“Everything in the class is designed to give Marines information on what they can and can’t do,” the driving instructor said. “The ‘fatal vision’ goggles lets them see what it feels like. You can turn that off, but it doesn’t work that way with alcohol.”

One student said wearing the goggles was the training’s most memorable portion. Cpl. Warner J. Murphy, legal specialist, said it was hard to “wear the alcohol goggles and try to walk the white line and pass the alcohol test. It taught me to never drink and drive or drive while fatigued.”

After the three days of classroom training, Marin said, Marines finally get an opportunity to get behind the wheel. They’re kept on base, though, to help them get used to Japanese cars in a low-risk environment.

“We want to familiarize them with sitting on the other side of the vehicle and realize where the controls are,” Marin said.

During the afternoon of the fourth day, Marin said, student drivers are put through a cone course to evaluate their maneuvering and braking skills.

On the course’s last day, the Marines are taken off base and each take turns at driving on the busy streets of Okinawa.

“We take them out in town so they get the feel of driving off base — seeing cars parked illegally, sticking out into their lane,” Marin said. “As we drive, we teach them and tell them, ‘This is what we were talking about in class.’”

Marin added that going through the course doesn’t mean a Marine will get his or her license. He said the instructors have the option of failing anyone they judge is not up to par. Among factors that could keep a Marine from getting licensed are unsafe driving, hitting curbs, not listening to instruction and lack of basic defensive driving skills.

The course was given a trial run in late December and has been offered regularly for about a month — too short a time to measure whether accidents have decreased, officials said.

Murphy, however, predicted, “The way they trained us, I think the accident levels will go down.”

Learning the Japanese practice of driving on the left “was weird but the instructors were good and trained us well,” Murphy said. “They were real patient with us and told us what to do and what not to do. "

He said he believes all Marines, regardless of rank, and their family members, should go through the course.

While Marin said the goal of the course is to make Okinawa safer, he hopes the Marines remember and use the training after they leave the island.

“We want them to take it home with them and not just use it here … defensive driving applies everywhere,” Marin said.

He said all Marines and any servicemember attached to a Marine unit on Okinawa can take the course but commands should realize they’ll be losing that person for a full five days. To sign up for the course, Marin said, servicemembers should contact their unit’s operations sections.

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