Air brakes on Army trucks tied to highway accidents 5-ton rigs told to cut speed; 56 soldiers died in rollovers


WASHINGTON -- Sensitive air brakes on 32,000 of the Army's cargo-carrying 5-ton trucks have contributed to an upsurge of highway accidents, including 128 vehicle rollovers, killing 56 soldiers and 13 civilians and seriously injuring hundreds more, Pentagon officials said.

In response to inquiries, Army officials confirmed this week an excessive death and injury toll since 1992 for the M939 truck, an older generation vehicle used throughout the United States and abroad by active duty, reserve and National Guard units.

The M939 truck was "leading the Army accident rate," said Gerald Taube, manager of the program at the Army Tank Armament and Automotive Command in Warren, Mich.

Newsday obtained a copy of a safety bulletin issued Armywide in January ordering all units to limit to 40 mph the speed of the truck, designed to go 60 mph. The warning cautioned against "overbraking," noting that it caused wheels to lock, engines to stall and vehicles to skid, leading "to loss of vehicle control often resulting in collisions, jackknifing and rollovers."

It was the second safety warning issued for the M939 fleet. Since the truck was first fielded in 1983, 132 deaths have been attributed to the M939. Army officials blame the high casualty rates on shifting truck use from the field to the highways and inexperienced Army drivers.

Trucks are as crucial to Army readiness as planes to the Air Force and ships to the Navy. Infantry, armor and artillery combat units depend on trucks for transportation to the battlefield as well as ammunition, food, water, fuel and all other logistical support.

But defective trucks have become a problem for combat commanders.

In addition to speed limits on the M939, a new 5-ton truck designed as a replacement also is under a 30-mph safety limitation. The new truck was restricted last month after Army officials uncovered drivetrain problems that were similar to defects in the 2.5-ton version of the Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles, or FMTV.

Defense Secretary William Cohen has halted future contracts under the new $15.7 billion program until the truck's manufacturer, Stewart & Stevenson of Houston, can fix the problem permanently.

The older 5-ton trucks were made by AM General of South Bend, Ind., and BMY of Marysville, Ohio.

Pub Date: 6/19/98

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