When I was first assigned a position to lead people in the Air Force, I was expected to be, among other things, a safety cheerleader, encouraging my team to avoid mishaps and work safely.
This was a bit new to me and I found most safety lectures I sat through in the past to be dull and boring, so at some point I adopted a safety motto to help break the ice and introduce topics of discussion.
It wasn’t as good as Calvin’s “Be careful, or be road kill” with patented 3-D gore-o-rama, but whenever I told the team “don’t do stupid stuff” it garnered a chuckle and we could segue into the topic-du-jour, such as DUI, which I would then classify as doing stupid stuff.
For almost every topic I briefed, be it speeding, riding without a helmet or any of a myriad of things you read in safety reports I could classify it as doing stupid stuff and warn the team to avoid doing something that stupid. Essentially, my motto described a safety philosophy where if you didn’t go looking to get hurt by disobeying and ignoring the rules, you would be just fine.
My perspective on safety changed dramatically a few weeks after I returned from a humanitarian mission to Honduras. During my time there we worked hard to build the foundations of a masonry schoolhouse for a small village. Each day we watched traffic mayhem as donkey carts, tractor-trailers and a variety of run-down cars jockeyed for position on the highway crossing between our camp and our construction project. For the most part watching the traffic game was amusing, and we managed to avoid any close encounters.
I rotated back to home-station and two weeks later a close friend from the squadron left to lead her phase of the construction project. One week after her departure I sat beside her husband while the benefits officer explained what payments he and his children could expect in the future after Captain Palmer was killed on the roads of Honduras. She died in a head-on collision as a tractor-trailer in the oncoming direction crossed a double-yellow line to pass on a blind curve. After this, safety briefings became more somber, and my catch phrase wasn’t used any more.
It took a year or so before I began briefings with a new motto: “They really are out to get you!” Inanimate objects like barriers, bollards and parked vehicles are hunting your fenders and bumpers. The driving conditions out on the roads here are every bit as bad as those in Honduras, or the freeways of southern Italy.
Distracted and aggressive drivers on the roads aren’t watching out for anyone else. If you want to be safe you have to treat everyone on the road as a wreck waiting to happen to you. Obviously there aren’t any guarantees, and serious accidents can still happen despite our best efforts, but staying aware of what is going on around you and anticipating what could happen are the best we can do to be safe. Good luck out there, and remember, “they really are out to get you!”