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Our Military Might Need Learners’ Permits

From my aging Boomer perspective, it came as a jolt to discover there’s a big percentage of young Americans who either can’t drive cars or don’t want to. What’s this the social science geeks are telling me? Among eligible Gen Z—the so-called Zoomers who entered the human fray between 1996-2012—only about half of them have drivers’ licenses? That’s hard to swallow given what I recall about that lifestyle milestone that had me gasping to reach the age of 16 when I had my first encounter with a DMV. Walked in a homebound kid and came away an aspiring adult equipped with a ticket to freedom.

But the statistics gurus swear it’s true. They blame it all on a bunch of things including increased availability of public transportation in urban areas, Uber and Lyft, escalating insurance costs, risk aversion, climate concerns, and a declining car culture. Since we obviously can’t trust our own lying eyes, I guess I’ll have to accept the data for now and look around for evidence that teenagers still long passionately for that legal ticket to ride and build self-confidence in piloting a powerful motor vehicle.

Military recruiting stats would have you believe otherwise but I still think a representative number of American teenagers wind up in uniform, so I took a cursory look at the services for a counterargument. Once I plowed through the inevitable aviation mishap stats and got over cringing at the dismal early record of such airframes as the VSTOL Harrier and the tilt-rotor Osprey, I discovered that the biggest culprit was ground vehicles of all sorts, from HUMVEES to armored behemoths. Focus here on military wheels for which the services usually have a standard training curriculum.

Our military has a piss-poor record of ground vehicle training accidents over the past decade. In just one recent year there were something like 63 percent of fatal training accidents involving various military motor vehicles, and we keep seeing this kind of thing in training fatalities. Investigators blame it on lots of things including excess speed, mission pressures, poor maintenance, and driver inexperience.

Hold it right there. Driver inexperience? Maybe the social scientists are onto something relating to youngsters who just don’t seem to be interested in the business of driving cars and gaining better coping skills plus self-reliance. Maybe the young men and woman we are putting at the controls of powerful land beats like the Marine Corps’ wheeled Amphibious Combat Vehicle or the Army’s family of Medium Tactical Vehicles are operating without sufficient civilian background. Maybe powering around Camp Pendleton or Ft. Leonard Wood behind the wheel of such powerful machines is asking too much of a kid who has never even parallel parked a Prius. Could be we’re doing something akin to putting a neanderthal in charge of a spaceship.

OK, that last thing was a bit unkind but you should be getting my drift. Training can only do so much, and its effectiveness is usually related to a person’s previous experiences in some manner. That’s why the military looks for young people who have hunting/tracking experience to become scouts and snipers. And where would the military cyber world be without bringing in kids that grew up glued to computers and internet-access devices? What’s the answer here?

Our military can’t go recruiting for shade-tree mechanics or street racers. Those things mostly don’t exist anymore. Even if they did, other recuring barriers such as low unemployment, concerns about combat risk, constant deployments in a challenging world environment, and a comparatively uncomfortable military lifestyle would complicate the search for young talent with an appropriate background. As usual, the solution to this steady drumbeat of military motor vehicle accidents lies in training. More accurately, it lies in assumptions prior to the start of training. In today’s military world, we don’t assume every man or woman who arrives for basic training has handled a rifle or any kind of weapon. We shouldn’t train our motor vehicle operators based on an assumption that they’ve spent at least a little time behind the wheel of a car or truck. That means doing some things Barney-style in a crawl before you walk method. It will cost time but save lives.

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