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Departments Launch Safe-Driving Initiative for Veterans

Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden, American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 12, 2009 –

A new research and awareness program geared toward preventing motor vehicle fatalities among veterans who return from deployments was formally launched today during a news conference at the Veterans Affairs Department here.

Veterans Affairs Secretary James B. Peake teamed up with the Defense and Transportation departments and NASCAR legend Richard Petty to announce the creation of the “Home Safe, Drive Safe, Stay Safe” initiative, which he told reporters is designed with one objective: to save the lives of veterans on the highways.

“We’ve all come together to address something that is a recurring problem,” Peake said. “Young men and women in our armed forces return home safely from combat operations, yet they face a life-threatening risk at home on our highways.”

VA and Transportation Department research on Vietnam and Gulf War veterans shows the risk of death from a motor-vehicle accident was much higher during the first five years after redeployment, regardless of gender. For present-day Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, the risk is 75 percent greater than the general U.S. population, Peake said.

Regardless of the conflict, gender or age, “there’s an elevated risk to our returning heroes of dying on our roadways from traffic accidents,” he added.

“Today, nearly 2 million men and women have served in combat zones since 2003, and there are more that will serve in the current conflicts,” Peake said. “And as important, future generations will undoubtedly be called upon to serve the cause of freedom abroad, and we must do our part now to ensure that they will drive safe and stay safe when they return home.”

The first aspect of the initiative is a public health information campaign on safe driving to raise awareness and educate veterans about risks and to remind them of proven safety measures such as using seat belts, not drinking and driving, wearing a helmet on motorcycles and knowing the dangers of speeding, he said.

Individual units throughout the military have programs and reintegration measures for accident prevention among active-duty servicemembers. As part of this initiative, a national education program through VA medical centers, community clinics, counseling centers and benefits offices seeks to raise awareness for veterans who’ve left the service, Peake said.

The second aspect of the program is continuing research to provide a strategic safety plan. Participants include scientists and policy officials from the VA, Defense, Transportation and Health and Human Services departments, as well as nongovernmental experts, he said.

Peake said experts in transportation safety, veterans’ health and medical care, and public health are identifying gaps in current knowledge and developing a strategic plan for addressing key research questions in fields ranging from epidemiology to psychology to biomechanics.

“Our returning combat veterans have already put themselves in harm’s way to protect our lives,” Dave Kelly, acting administrator of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, said. “Their increased risks on our roadways are too high of a price for us to be paying. We gladly offer up our expertise and resources to help our veterans make a safe transition home.”

Petty also has offered his partnership. According to the Richard Petty Driving Experience Web site, Petty’s program was launched in 2007 to promote and teach advanced safe driving skills. It’s designed to raise situational awareness through compromising situations in driving simulators.

The site’s staff can tailor it to provide whatever officials think they need to help the effort, Petty said during the news conference.

“[Deployed servicemembers] have been in a different environment, and it’s up to us to say, ‘OK guys, slow down. This is where you are, and this is what we’ve got to do to be safe. We didn’t lose you overseas; we sure don’t want to lose you once you get home,’” he said.

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