The phenomenon has been revealed by various pieces of evidence — research as well as observations of service members, veterans and counselors.
The most common explanation is that troops bring back driving habits that were lifesaving in war zones but are dangerous on America’s roads. They include racing through intersections, straddling lanes, swerving on bridges and, for some, not wearing seat belts because they hinder a rapid escape.
That’s probably not the whole story, however. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suffered by thousands of veterans, increases aggressive driving. Drunken driving and thrill-seeking also are more common after combat, according to a few studies and the testimony of many veterans.
If further research supports the observations, motor vehicle crashes will join suicide and interpersonal violence as a fatal, if indirect, consequence of the war on terrorism.
Motor vehicle crashes have long been a serious problem in the military. From 1999 through 2012, a period spanning peacetime and the two wars, as many active-duty military personnel died in noncombat motor vehicle crashes both on and off duty (4,423) as were killed in the Iraq war (4,409).
“Before suicides became the leading cause of non-battle injuries, motor vehicle injuries were,” said Bruce H. Jones, a physician and epidemiologist who heads the Army’s injury prevention program at Aberdeen Proving Ground, in Maryland.
War, however, worsens the problem.
Men who served in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan have a 76 percent higher rate of dying in vehicle crashes, and women a 43 percent higher rate, than people in the general population, according to an unpublished study by Han K. Kang, an epidemiologist with the Department of Veterans Affairs. The same phenomenon was seen in Persian Gulf War veterans and took five years to dissipate.
Fatal motorcycle crashes in particular spiked during the wars. They accounted for 14 percent of military traffic deaths in 2001, but 38 percent in 2008. The absolute rate of motorcycle deaths also tripled over that period.
“A lot of people come home and buy a motorcycle to have that adrenaline rush again,” said Steven Acheson, 27, a former forward observer in the Army and an engineering student in Wisconsin.
He spent time at Fort Stewart in Georgia, where the post put vehicles from fatal crashes on display as a form of warning. “There was once six or seven completely mangled motorcycles out in front of the gate,” Acheson recalled.