Erratic Driving of Combat Veterans

A unique feature of the Iraq and Afghanistan deployments is that many U.S. military personnel were attacked while driving. VA clinicians are aware that many of these returnees now face challenges in daily driving back in the US. Furthermore, actuarial data recently released by USAA, the major insurer of active and retired military personnel, have confirmed elevated accident rates post-deployment.

A review of driving records for tens of thousands of troops before and after deployments by USAA discovered that auto accidents in which the 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 the review, which covered the years 2007-2010.

Returnees report that roadside objects, overpasses and other reminders of traumatic driving events can elicit fear and distress and divert attention from genuine civilian driving risks. Such responses are perfectly understandable from the perspective of what we know about human psychological functioning. For some returnees, fear and distress during driving will be persistent and disabling, and lead even to driving phobia.

Another facet of the problem is that common civilian driving situations can enlist trained “combat driving” maneuvers such as sudden swerving and driving in the center of the road, actions that were protective while deployed, but increase risk now. Similarly, many returnees now resist using seat belts for fear of entrapment even though seat belts greatly reduce risk of serious injury in civilian driving. The U.S. Army has recognized OEF/OIF returnees’ driving problems in its web-based BATTLEMIND Training, however, the DoD and VA are now exploring more intensive methods of helping veterans regain their comfort and sense of safety while driving on civilian roads. One of these efforts is underway at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System and involves in-car sessions with a driving rehabilitation specialist. Interested persons can email their phone number to [email protected].

The author of this article is Dr. Steven H. Woodward. Dr. Woodward is a licensed clinical psychologist at the National Center for PTSD / Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System. He received his PhD from the University of Southern California.