In recent years, Department of Defense Dependents Schools has tried to minimize the dangers of kids getting on and off buses at bases.

In recent years, Department of Defense Dependents Schools has tried to minimize the dangers of kids getting on and off buses at bases. (Kent Harris / S&S)

In recent years, Department of Defense Dependents Schools has tried to minimize the dangers of kids getting on and off buses at bases.

In recent years, Department of Defense Dependents Schools has tried to minimize the dangers of kids getting on and off buses at bases. (Kent Harris / S&S)

A wrecked car with the banner, “Click it or ticket; NSA Naples Security is out to save lives,” is parked at the front gate of the Capodichino base to remind drivers to take care on the roads.

A wrecked car with the banner, “Click it or ticket; NSA Naples Security is out to save lives,” is parked at the front gate of the Capodichino base to remind drivers to take care on the roads. (Kendra Helmer / S&S)

Navigating Europe’s roads can be tricky for Americans living in military communities overseas — and not only off base.

Each year, Americans are involved in thousands of accidents on the highways and byways of Europe. Safety and security officials readily cite the main causes: unfamiliarity with rules and roads, different styles of driving by local nationals, excessive speed and general lack of attention.

“Almost everyone knows what the right thing to do is,” said Col. Scott Adams, the director of safety for U.S. Air Forces in Europe. “A lot of times, it’s just a matter of deciding to do the right thing.”

But on base, where Americans generally feel safe as they commute from home to work, it isn’t statistically much safer.

At Aviano Air Base in Italy, for instance, accidents on base in a 12-month period beginning in the middle of May 2002 accounted for about 26 percent of all accidents reported to the 31st Security Forces Squadron.

“We have people come in every day for traffic reports,” said Mary Dall, who handles much of the computerized accident records for the base.

Take away major accidents — generally categorized as resulting in heavy damage to cars or their occupants — and the percentage of on-base accidents at Aviano jumps to 33 percent. At a base where the total number of accidents has averaged more than 700 a year since the 31st Fighter Wing took up residence in the mid-1990s, the numbers start to pile up.

The rates of on-base accidents vary at bases across Europe.

Air Force bases in Europe reported 538 minor on-base accidents and 85 major on-base accidents in 2002. In 2001, there were 530 minor accidents and 77 major accidents. And through May of this year, there were 224 minor accidents and 38 major ones on base.

But those numbers don’t include the Air Force’s largest base in Europe, Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Ramstein doesn’t track minor accidents, officials say, nor does it break accidents down between on-base incidents and off-base.

U.S. Army Europe has more bases, more personnel and more cars— and more accidents. In 2001, the command recorded 3,098 accidents on its bases or about 42 percent of the 7,386 total accidents. In 2002, 2,972 of the 7,399 accidents, or about 40 percent, were on base. In the first quarter of this year, 781 of the 1,897 accidents, or about 41 percent, were on base.

U.S. Naval Forces in Europe has the smallest population centers among the three services and the fewest bases.

There were 169 on-base accidents reported at bases in the greater Naples area in 2002, only about 17 percent of the 978 total accidents.

But the reverse was the case at most other Navy bases in Europe, partly because personnel live primarily on base in several of those locations. Naval Station Rota, Spain, recorded 113 accidents during fiscal year 2002. Of those, 90 of them, almost 80 percent, happened on base. So far in the 2003 fiscal year, 48 of the 66 accidents, or about 73 percent, have been on base.

At Naval Air Station Keflavik, Iceland, and Naval Support Activity La Maddalena, Sardinia, the numbers skew even further. Almost 99 percent of the 350 accidents in the last three years in Keflavik have been on base, and the percentage is only slightly less at La Maddalena.

Where, why and how

Why do accidents happen on base? Aviano’s records tell some tales.

Inattentive driving is the No. 1 cause of accidents on base, according to base reports, followed closely by incidents involving a driver backing up. Failure to stop is a distant third.

Lt. Col. Pat Miller, Aviano’s chief of safety, said most on-base accidents don’t result in a great deal of damage to either the drivers or their cars.

But many of the accidents shouldn’t be happening at all.

“I would say that almost all of our on-base accidents are preventable,” he said. “You’ve got to pay attention to the task at hand.”

As on many bases in Europe, parking at Aviano can be a challenge. And getting out of those sometimes narrow and cramped spaces, especially with other cars waiting to pounce on empty slots, can lead to accidents.

The large parking lot in front of Aviano’s base exchange and commissary is one of the top spots for accidents.

Sites of frequent accidents at Aviano also include the perimeter road around the base and the gates leading to various areas on the base.

Other bases around Europe have their own spots where lots of accidents occur, Adams said. Base officials know those, he said, and take measures to fix problems when they can.

Some military communities have programs in which drivers can report the license plates of vehicles — on and off base — whose drivers are deemed to be driving recklessly. At Aviano, at least one person lost driving privileges for a month as a result of the program.

Military law enforcement officers set up checkpoints for speeding at many bases, sometimes with radar guns. Speeds on base — no more than 50 kilometers per hour and often 30 kilometers — are lower than what many people are used to driving off base.

“Unless you’re continually monitoring your speedometer, sometimes it’s easy to go over that,” said Master Sgt. David White, the action officer for police services for USAFE’s security forces.

But it’s not an excuse that he or other law enforcement officials will buy when handing out a ticket.

On base vs. off base

For the most part, accidents on base have not resulted in deaths. From 1997 to 2002, Adams said, there were 32 fatal accidents involving USAFE personnel. Some of those involved multiple deaths, but none happened on base.

He said efforts to keep speeds low on bases contribute to that.

“When you look at the speeds we drive on base, they’re relatively low, so in a car you have relative safety [on impact],” he said. “My biggest concern is not car versus car, but car versus pedestrian or bicycle.”

Others share that concern.

In fact, it’s one of the biggest safety issues for the Department of Defense Dependents Schools. In recent years, DODDS has tried to minimize the dangers of kids getting on and off buses.

Wherever possible, that has resulted in restricting access where buses drop off children and pick them up. David Sieber, who works in the system’s transportation branch, said DODDS has added such provisions when it builds new facilities.

“The new school in Aviano is a wonderful example of that,” he said. A large area in front of the new school is set up for buses to line up and load and unload kids. Cars are prohibited in the area.

“Before last year, we had to chase cars out before the buses would arrive,” said Lino Lagioia, school transportation specialist at Aviano.

Overall, DODDS’ biggest concern is with school bus stops off the bases, where it has no control. Parents need to make sure children are aware of vehicles around the stops, Sieber said. And the parents need to practice good safety tips themselves.

“If you’re going to meet your child at the stop, meet them at the stop,” he said. “Not across the street.”

Though military officials won’t say so on the record, they’re similarly focusing more attention on driving habits off base. That’s where the major accidents occur. And that’s where dozens of Americans are killed every year.

But getting the numbers down on base wouldn’t cause any frowns.

“They all concern us, and we look at each one of them,” Adams said of car accidents. “My opinion is that one accident is too much. Of any type.”

Leading factors

U.S. Army Europe safety officials have identified the leading factors in vehicle accidents involving the command’s personnel. In many cases, multiple factors are found to have either been the cause of the accident or contributed to the severity of it. They include:

Speed. “Excessive speed for conditions, traffic, weather or experience” contributed to 45 percent of the command’s accidents during off-duty hours and 35 percent of on-duty accidents.Seat belt use. About 21 percent of on-duty accidents and 12 percent of off-duty accidents involved passengers or drivers who weren’t wearing seat belts. The command says this sometimes lead to more serious injuries than would have otherwise occurred.Fatigue. Late-night driving and poor trip planning contributed to 11 percent of off-duty accidents and extended duty hours were blamed in 20 percent of on-duty accidents.The largest factor for on-duty accidents is personnel failing to follow procedures. USAREUR says it contributed to 60 percent of on-duty accidents. It also blamed almost a quarter of on-duty accidents partly to poor planning or inadequate briefing by supervisors.

Alcohol wasn’t cited as a major contributor to on-duty accidents and received 5 percent of the blame for off-duty incidents.

— Stars and Stripes

author picture
Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for 40 years.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now