Veteran driving

Driving lessons in Brighton during rush hour might feel like driving in a war zone, especially if you are passing a school and looking out for young people darting out into the middle of the road while trying to negotiate passing the school bus and not holding up the family 4X4 behind you. But the conditions are, of course, very different.

Those who join the American Army undergo hours of combat driver’s training. They are trained to be hyper-vigilant and scan the roadside. Doesn’t sound that different from your driving lessons? They are also taught to speed, ignore traffic rules and change lanes erratically. While this would undoubtedly be highly dangerous on civilian roads in the UK or US, in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan these methods could help soldiers avoid gun fire and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Former Army captain Will Coulter, who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan told “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 or small arms fire…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…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.”

It seems many of those veterans returning from war zones are finding it difficult to dial down the high reflexes they have honed while driving at home. A US car insurance company USAA, who provides insurance for those who serve in the military and their families, has found accidents where service members were at fault increased by 13% post deployment.

There is historical data that demonstrates this is not new, Eric Kuhn, a research health science specialist at the National Center for PTSD Dissemination and Training Division said: “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.” The repercussions of driving in a war zone seem to linger for around 7 years. “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.”

According to a study at the University of Minnesota 35% of veterans said comments had been made about their dangerous driving. However it is arguable many veterans return simply with improved attentiveness and defensiveness to their driving. As veteran Coulter explains: “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.”

Coulter also believes the stress management he learned in the Army improves his driving: “Stress management is another good thing you learn in driving in combat…Just because someone cuts me off or flips me a bird…I’m not going to get upset about it. I’ve learned to maintain a calm, cool, collected appearance…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.”

It has been suggested that a change in warfare, coming up against more guerilla tactics mean more trauma is experienced when in vehicles, which could be linked to some veteran’s PTSD and difficulties adjusting their driving style.

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