Veterans deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan during the wars
underwent hours of combat driver's training.
They learned to scan roadsides and be hypervigilant. They also
learned to speed, disregard traffic rules and change lanes
"In the beginning of the war, we just drove as fast and as crazy
as we could to stay safe without getting blown up by IEDs
(improvised explosive devices) or small arms fire," says Will
Coulter, a former Army captain who served war zone deployments in
both Iraq and Afghanistan.
"When I was there in 2005 we would scan all around the vehicle
to make sure there was nothing out of place, and we also had to
look for snipers, vehicle-borne IEDs and a huge spectrum of unknown
threats that could exist out there," says Coulter. "You had a
gunner stand in the middle of the vehicle through a turret with a
weapon to deal with any threats you may encounter."
have a hard time shutting down the engine when they return
Back into civilian life
The car insurance company USAA, a leading insurer of those who
serve in the military and their immediate families, discovered that
accidents in which service members were at fault went up by 13
percent after deployments. Accidents were particularly common in
the six months after an overseas tour, according to
, which covered 2007-2010.
"We have epidemiological data showing that, after a deployment
in Vietnam, Gulf War 1 and the recent wars, there is a spike in
motor vehicle accident-related deaths," says Eric Kuhn, research
health science specialist at the
National Center for PTSD Dissemination and Training
at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Palo Alto, Calif.
That "spike" lasts about seven years. When soldiers come back,
they go through what's called a reintegration phase.
"When I came back we weren't allowed to drive for 24 to72 hours
because you just got off of an airplane, the time zone has changed
and your body is fatigued," says Coulter.
While reintegration driving problems may be due in part to
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury or
anxiety issues, others simply are experiencing reflexive habits,
experts say. "I think a lot of it may be a post-deployment natural
readjustment that needs to take place. So in the first few weeks --
few months when you return, you're still kind of keyed up -- you're
still operating as if you're in the war zone, but overtime you
relearn and reestablish your sense of safety on civilian roadways,"
In a reintegration study on Iraq-Afghanistan conducted by Erica
Stern, , an associate professor of occupational therapy at the
University of Minnesota, 35 percent of combat veterans surveyed
reported others have commented about their dangerous driving.
The training pays off, sometimes
Service members are unlikely to face higher insurance rates
solely because of past deployments. If anything, they are more
likely to see
for their military service. Even so, an accident or multiple
traffic tickets can drive up rates quickly.
Some vets are more attentive and defensive drivers when they
return, so it can swing either way. Coulter is one of the lucky
Coulter, out of the military now and getting his MBA, as well as
running a commercial pressure-washing business in Chattanooga,
Tenn., says combat driving has only improved his driving. "I do
scan the road, not in a bad way, but in my mind I'm always looking
at the habits of drivers around me."
"Stress management is another good thing you learn in driving in
combat," says Coulter. "Just because someone cuts me off or flips
me a bird because they don't like the color shirt I'm wearing, I'm
not going to get upset about it. I've learned to maintain a calm,
cool, collected appearance."
In combat, "if a car cuts in front of you or a bomb goes off on
the side of the road or you get attacked, hollering and stressing
out is just going to worsen the situation," says Coulter. He says
cars to cut in front of him; he easily spots bad driving behaviors,
and his situational awareness is heightened.
How did Coulter manage to take the best aspects of combat
driving and apply them
once back home when others struggle?
"We have a tendency to study the things that go wrong and not to
focus on that aspect, but what we hear anecdotally is that folks
feel like their senses are a lot sharper because of combat
driving," says Kuhn.
Getting from there to here
In Kuhn's trauma recovery program study, there were differences
in reported behaviors based on whether veterans served in Vietnam,
the first Gulf War or recent conflicts. Recent returnees reported
twice the frequency of aggressive driving.
"There is some speculation that the nature of these conflicts
are different than a jungle war or the first Gulf War, which wasn't
protracted and they didn't have as long a deployment or multiple
deployments," says Kuhn.
What's more, a lot of enemy tactics in recent wars involved
guerrilla-style warfare whether it was IEDs or vehicle-borne IEDs
or snipers on buildings or overpasses. Much of the traumas occurred
Programs like Palo Alto's PTSD Prolonged Exposure Therapy are
making headway in helping those affected. That's where veterans
come up with a list of things they avoid (driving on the freeway)
or that distress them (driving in rush hour) and rank those
situations from least distressing to most distressing. Then they're
assigned those tasks as homework until they start recapturing some
of the ground that's been lost, using anger management and
breathing techniques to increase their comfort with civilian
Other researchers are experimenting with a range of therapies.
Dr. Loretta Malta, of the Albany Stratton VA Medical Center in New
York, and colleagues have developed a seven-session program based
on cognitive behavior therapy techniques. Likewise, occupational
therapist Mark Samuel at the VA's Palo Alto campus developed a
driving therapy program that takes vets out on the road and teaches
them an emotional regulation technique to see how they respond
psychologically and physiologically when driving.