Do protection teams drive too aggressively?

The above article describes an event that happened in Cameroon earlier this year. In the writer’s opinion this was an accident. A contributing factor was the seemingly unnecessary aggressive driving by the protection team. These incidents happen too often and are preventable with training and education.

  This topic has been controversial at times; I have heard all of the arguments, and have even argued both sides at different times in my career. It is a topic that I am intimately familiar with. My protection team had no less than 17 traffic accidents in a year, and nearly all of them were the result of overly aggressive driving. Thankfully, we never seriously hurt anyone. Well, except for the taxpayer who footed the bill for several quarter-million-dollar armored vehicles. Before I get too far into this topic, I want to make it clear that I use the articles as examples for teaching a point. I admit up front, I have no real knowledge of the circumstances of these accidents and the causes other than what was reported; but I also know exactly the mentality and general driving practices of protection teams, especially when in a deployed environment. All the aggressive driving stems from a few factors in my experience. Flawed tactical logic, insufficient training (including sustainment and/or situational training) and bravado.

  I have heard, and as I said earlier, even argued some of these points myself. Let us start with seatbelts. I remember when I was a young soldier, I heard the older guys say not to wear seatbelts so in case of attack, you could get out of the vehicle quickly. Made sense to me. So I used to argue, against logic, that this was the truth. Later, while on a mission with a Secretary of Defense, I heard the same argument used when we had an accident in Baghdad. The occupants of an advance vehicle were not mission capable after the accident, primarily because they were not using seatbelts. Later in my career, I studied the issue and realized how unsound that logic was. Seatbelts absolutely save lives and help to hold the driver in a better position to control the vehicle. In the event of an actual attack while driving, there is a higher possibility of crashing the vehicle. These crashes are exponentially more survivable when belted.

  I will admit I have been the victim of a clingy seatbelt when trying to get out of a vehicle, especially while wearing tactical gear. Instead of cursing the seatbelt, now I recognize a training need. If we can agree a seatbelt is necessary equipment, we should be able to agree that battle drills and situational training, that includes that particular piece of equipment are also necessary. In other words, if the seatbelt is an issue, train on better ways to get out of the seatbelt. You just might find out that fancy piece of new gear is more of a hindrance than it is worth. It is critical that vehicle extraction/evacuation drills include getting out of seatbelts.

  Many protection teams adopt a practice of going as fast as possible at all times. Teams tend to drive at a speed that is excessively fast for conditions. They combine this speed with aggressive maneuvers in the belief this makes them safer. After all, if a moving target is hard to hit, a fast-moving target must be harder to hit. While this is undoubtedly true on some small level, in many vehicle attacks, speed exacerbates the situation. Further, speed and over-aggressive driving brings undue attention and aggression to the motorcade. It increases dislike of the team and Principal. It becomes even more dangerous when using host-nation drivers because they are often not well trained. Do not get me wrong, there is a time and place for fast, aggressive driving as if your life depends on it. Hint: it is when your life depends on it. This type of driving should be treated like using your firearm, used in deadly-force-type incidents. Having a traffic accident brings embarrassment to the Principal. Even more embarrassment would come from being a party to the unnecessary death of a person.

  I ran a protection detail in Bosnia in 2000 and 2001. As previously mentioned, my detail had more than its share of accidents. Our drivers were poorly trained; the training they received was not tactically sound in some cases, and not fully understood in others. One accident we had was a direct result of the issues I have been discussing. Our motorcade was in the habit of driving fast and passing anywhere space allowed, regardless of passing zones or legal right-of-way. Most details drove this way in Bosnia, as crazy at that sounds. I suspect that if most protection people are honest, they will admit that they drove recklessly often. We convinced ourselves we were doing the right thing for the security of the Principal. One mission in particular, we were traveling in the wrong lane, passing a long line of cars. The trail vehicle became stuck beside a semi-truck and was unable to get back in the correct lane of travel. This ended with a head-on collision with another semi-truck; four of my team members were Medevac’d from the scene. Fortunately, none of them was critically injured; however, an armored vehicle was destroyed.

  There are many more examples of these accidents by teams at all levels. The article mentioned in the beginning is one. Another team caused a fatality accident in Bosnia, while I was there, under very similar circumstances. In 2007, the New Jersey Governor was seriously injured in a traffic accident. In this accident, it was reported that it could not be determined if the Governor was wearing a seatbelt, and often he did not. Was it the responsibility of the detail to ensure their principal was wearing a seatbelt? In that accident, the State Police reported that speed was not a factor.

  Vice President Biden’s security detail has been involved in several accidents, including striking and killing a pedestrian. A quick internet search will give you a picture that these incidents happen at all levels, and entirely too often. So what is the cause? What is the solution? I think the cause is clear. The solution? It starts with an honest look at our tactics, techniques, and procedures. Protection teams should have the ability to drive the wheels off the vehicle when necessary, but this should not be the default setting. This problem will only get better through training and education.

  Driver/motorcade training should always include scenario-based attack recognition. It should give the student the confidence to drive normally and recognize an attack early. Team members should develop and maintain the ability to quickly formulate a solution; these solutions could include aggressive, offensive/defensive maneuvers. Training should give a driver the ability to analyze routes, and drivable terrain in order to quickly determine an escape. Training should inculcate a culture of safety and an ability to determine when to drive normally and blend with traffic, or when to drive more aggressively.