From Iraq and Afghanistan to U.S. Roadways

Perhaps slowly, but surely, our troops are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Those of us who have not lived through the horrors of combat tend to think that back on U.S. soil, they are safe and sound and ready to embrace everyday American life. But readjustment to civilian life can be difficult, and for many vets, the roadways present major challenges.

Altered Reality behind the Wheel

All drivers know that safe driving includes awareness of what is going on around you, but some vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan practice a hyper-vigilance that can actually be unsafe for them and others on the road. Trained to look for signs of planted roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices (IED), some vets continue to scan for clues of these hazards even among quiet suburban streets. To avoid possible danger, returning vets may drive in the middle of the road, speed and even avoid stopping despite signals (lights or stop signs) to do so.

But threats inside a vehicle in Afghanistan or Iraq didn’t just come from planted explosives. Sniper fire was also common, and obstacles blocking passage, like a stalled passenger car or minor accident, may have been staged to keep troops in the line of fire. As a result, vets returning to American roadways notice other details that could be warnings.

Perhaps the biggest driving danger, however, is the result of PTSD, which may or may not be directly linked to vets’ driving or riding experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. For vets diagnosed with PTSD, nearly anything—a pedestrian on a cell phone, construction noise, a honking car horn—could trigger a flashback. The response to a past situation could mean that the driver flinches, swerves, accelerates or brakes quickly trying to avoid a danger that isn’t there. These sudden movements are often difficult for drivers of neighboring vehicles to defend against.

On the other hand, there are returning vets whose driving is not compromised by hyper-vigilance but by reckless behavior. For some, reckless driving may provide an adrenaline rush in the absence of combat-induced adrenaline highs. For others, it may be the product of a feeling of post-combat invincibility. Vets may think that since they survived war, they can survive anything. Tragically, they are often proven wrong, and the results are an increased number of single-car accidents with only the driver suffering injuries or death.

Raising Awareness

Although the military has been slow to acknowledge that vets are experiencing difficulty readjusting to driving on American roads, others have voiced concerns that are finally translating into new programs to help returning Iraq and Afghanistan vets. In 2009, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Transportation and Department of Defense joined forces to create the Veterans’ Safe Driving Initiative, chaired by former NASCAR driver Richard Petty. This initiative is designed to raise awareness among the organizations most involved with veterans’ reintroduction to civilian life and agencies concerned with driving and roadway safety as well as a plan for research.

Research and therapy aimed at helping vets manage symptoms of PTSD when behind the wheel are available at major VA centers in Palo Alto, CA; Minneapolis, MN and Albany, NY. However, with growing awareness, mental health resources to help vets safely return to U.S. roadways may soon become available around the country.

What You Can Do

Although there’s no way to know if the person driving the car beside you down Coors Blvd. is a returning vet or not, there are certain things you can do to help keep our local roads safe for returning vets and ourselves…many of which are just being the safe, defensive driver you know you should be already:

  1. Don’t make any unwarranted sudden movements. Stay in your lane. Use your turn signals before you need to change lanes or turn onto another street. Keep your focus on the road so that you are not jerking the wheel as you try to save your coffee from spilling, reach for your phone or correct drifting after breaking it down “Gangnam Style.”
  2. Keep your calm and your focus. You are now aware that someone refusing to restrict his or her movement to one lane may be in the process of breaking the habit of avoiding IEDs. Be patient with drivers who seem to be driving to a different set of road rules than you. If you can pass safely, do so, but without any gestures, expletives or honks that are meant to offend or rattle the other driver. Watch for cars traveling too fast to stop safely at intersections rather than just going because you have the right-of-way.
  3. Be proactive. If you notice someone driving recklessly, contact law enforcement when you are pulled over or safely to your destination. If you know someone who is returning from Iraq or Afghanistan, be sensitive to their situation and suggest that either you drive. If their driving is a matter of concern, encourage them to seek services to help them readjust to civilian life.

Stay safe out there, ABQ!