A civilian guard does a spot check for seat belt use at Yokota Air Base, Japan.

A civilian guard does a spot check for seat belt use at Yokota Air Base, Japan. (Jennifer Svan / S&S)

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Pacific Air Force bases are cracking down on motorists failing to wear seat belts or proper motorcycle safety gear.

Pacific Air Forces Commander Gen. William Begert issued a memorandum last month to all PACAF units and wing commanders that detailed his new zero-tolerance policy that automatically suspends driving privileges for first-time violators.

“Every year, Air Force members lose their lives in vehicle mishaps because they fail to use seat belts or proper” motorcycle personal protective equipment, Begert wrote in his Oct. 14 memo. “To help curb this unfavorable trend, I am implementing a zero-tolerance policy for not using safety equipment.”

There were two motorcycle fatalities in fiscal 2002, and during fiscal 2003 two PACAF airmen were killed in vehicle crashes and a third seriously injured, PACAF safety officials said.

PACAF spokesman Maj. James Law said wearing seat belts and proper motorcycle safety gear has always been a Defense Department requirement.

Begert also directed bases to conduct monthly seat belt and “personal protective equipment” checks and to compile those statistics and brief him quarterly.

What Begert did “was to ‘step up’ the enforcement of those policies by incorporating stern consequences,” Law said in an e-mail. “If you’re caught not wearing your safety equipment, you won’t be allowed to drive.”

Here’s how the policy works:

First offense: Driving privileges suspended one week.

Second offense within a 12-month period: Privileges suspended one month.

Three times in 18 months: License revoked for a year.

In Japan and South Korea, where host-nation licensing authority is issued through local commands, violators lose off-base driving privileges as well, according to the policy.

The policy applies to all personnel sponsored under the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement.

Passengers who don’t buckle up can get the driver a ticket, too, says Master Sgt. David Schuller, 374th Airlift Wing ground safety supervisor. “As the operator, you’re responsible for making sure people in your vehicle are buckled up.”

Reaction to the strict enforcement of the policy is mixed at Yokota.

Some airmen say it’s the right thing to do, while others call it excessive.

“Sure, why not?” said Staff Sgt. Kenzie Miles, 25. “Safety is for everybody. It’s not hurting anything, just precautions, so I’m for that.”

Said Staff Sgt. Jessica Foiles, 25: “I see a lot of people driving around with their kids not wearing a seat belt. I think if they’re dumb enough to do something like that, they should be punished for it.”

But Staff Sgt. Robin Krzyzanowski, 25, said the policy is “a little over the top.”

“What if you get in your car, you’re in a hurry and you forget to put on your seat belt and you happen to get pulled over in those few seconds?” Krzyzanowski said. “It’s all for safety, of course, but it’s a little extreme for the first time.”

Capt. David Macon, 35, said his concern about the policy is the bright, reflective vests required for motorcyclists.

“It only makes me stand out in Japan as a target, especially for tickets,” he said.

Schuller said the reflective material stipulation was recently reimplemented at Yokota — it had been abandoned due to force protection concerns following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Proper motorcycle personal protective equipment generally includes a helmet, over-the-ankle boots, eye protection, full-fingered gloves, long-sleeved shirt, pants and a bright-colored or contrasting vest or jacket, according to 374th Airlift Wing safety officials.

A three-quarters-length or full-face helmet is an additional Yokota requirement, Schuller said.

“What we do see is people wearing half-helmets” or novelty helmets, said Lt. Col. Jon Taylor, 374th Airlift Wing chief of safety.

At Yokota, the zero-tolerance policy will be enforced 24 hours a day, seven days a week, said Master Sgt. Alain Clifford, 374th Security Forces Squadron noncommissioned officer in charge of police services.

Anyone caught violating the policy will have his or her name added to a revocation/suspension list posted at all installation gates and law enforcement offices, Clifford said.

“If caught driving while your privileges have been suspended or revoked, an additional two-year revocation will be imposed,” Clifford said.

As of last Friday, no driving privileges have been revoked at Yokota under the zero-tolerance policy, Clifford said.

Previously, bases set their own seat belt and motorcycle safety gear enforcement measures.

“This resulted in inconsistent policies and in some cases no policy, throughout the command,” Law said. “The new guidance standardizes the policy throughout PACAF.”

“Seat belts and motorcycle [personal protective equipment] do save lives and reduce severity when a mishap occurs,” Law said.

Recent crashes

Recent serious or fatal vehicle crashes in Pacific Air Forces:

Feb. 9, 2002:An off-duty airman assigned to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, was killed while driving a motorcycle after being struck by another motorcycle.

July, 21, 2002:An off-duty airman assigned to Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, was killed after losing control of his motorcycle and hitting a guardrail.

April 4:An off-duty airman assigned to Yokota Air Base, Japan, sustained head trauma resulting in a coma. The airman was a passenger in a car that struck a wall; he was not wearing a seat belt.

June 12:An off-duty airman assigned to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, was killed in a single-vehicle crash. The airman was not wearing a seat belt.

July 23:An off-duty airman assigned to Misawa Air Base, Japan, was killed on a motorcyle after hitting a truck while traveling at a high rate of speed.

Source: PACAF safety officials

author picture
Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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