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The day Capt. Joe Stuyvesant reported for duty as commanding officer of Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy, he came upon a serious car accident involving an American.

It wasn’t an anomaly. At the time, June 2004, military personnel and their families were averaging two accidents per day.

“That number seemed incredibly high to me,” Stuyvesant said in a recent interview. “I decided to make it a priority.”

That focus contributed to an overall decrease in the number of traffic accidents by 57 percent between 2003 and 2006. More importantly, Stuyvesant said, accidents with injuries declined by 71 percent, and driving under the influence incidents went down by 77.5 percent.

“We took a three-way stance: we looked at rewarding positive behavior, educating people and we wanted accountability,” Stuyvesant said.

Officials have used programs ranging from message blitzes on radio, television and “arrive alive” banners, to creative solutions, said Robert Hall, the base safety director.

For example, the base makes no secret that gate guards have and use their hand-held alcohol-detecting wands called the Alcoblow. In 2003, officials learned of 99 percent of the 58 DUI incidents only when there were accidents. In 2006, four of the 13 DUI cases were discovered that way, while six were found through the base’s use of the Alcoblow.

“We put Alcoblow at the gates and let the public know,” said Lt. Cmdr. Ricky Gilbert, the assistant security officer. “We’re not hiding it. But the goal isn’t to catch them. The goal is to deter them from drinking and driving.”

Leaders acknowledged that only drivers coming through the military gates might be tested. To help reach those living off base, they pushed a designated driver program, rewarding with prizes those who abstained from alcohol to drive friends home. And people who host parties at their homes can check out an Alcoblow from base security to test guests before they leave, Gilbert said.

Officials also hand out smaller, one-time use testing devices at festivals and functions — an effort that lets drivers know for sure whether or not they should be getting behind the wheel.

Obviously, not all accidents are alcohol-related. Before Americans are authorized the drive, they must take an eight-hour driver improvement program, tailored to Sigonella’s unique environment, Hall said.

It covers topics from dangers of speed to navigating roads that are often laden with potholes, streets that don’t drain and can lead to hydroplaning, and the infamous erratic driver behavior of southern Italians.

However, officials can’t just blame the Italians’ driving habits. More than 60 percent of the total accidents were the fault of American drivers, Stuyvesant said.

“Driving here is not like driving in the States, where in some instances maybe you can almost go on autopilot. … Here, you can’t afford to do that. You can’t afford to talk on the cell phone and drive. You can’t afford to be distracted.”

The base’s 96-for-96 program — in which sailors in commands that go 96 days without a DUI incident receive a 96-hour liberty — has been so successful that too many people are qualifying for the leave. So the base is looking for something else to inspire safe driving, Stuyvesant said.

“Now with our DUIs so low, we’re looking for new incentives,” Gilbert said. “We don’t want that to plateau and we want the DUIs to continue to go down.”

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