Big trucks protect troops in Iraq, but are hard to handle

The towering trucks that give U.S. troops the best protection against roadside bombs and enemy bullets also make them vulnerable to routine hazards such as sharp turns, rutted roads and rickety bridges.

Five deaths caused by rollovers and dozens of other accidents in Iraq and Afghanistan have led U.S. military leaders to warn troops to be smart behind the wheel, according to military documents obtained by The Associated Press and accident reports released under the Freedom of Information Act.

The message is especially relevant in Afghanistan, where a resurgent Taliban has boosted demand for these steel cocoons, known as MRAPs. Because of the country's mountainous terrain and unpaved roads, officials will send nearly 800 more RG-31s, the smallest of several different MRAPs the military now uses.

Yet even at a comparatively nimble 9 tons, the RG-31 is not immune from tipping. On June 29, three Green Berets drowned when theirs rolled into a canal in southern Afghanistan. The accident is under investigation.

The MRAPs – the military's acronym for “mine-resistant, ambush-protected” – get high marks from commanders for protecting U.S. personnel from enemy attack. Close to 7,000 of the vehicles are already in use in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Pentagon is buying at least that many more.

And despite their bulk, the MRAPs have power steering, air brakes and quick acceleration. These features can lull drivers into thinking they're handling a bigger version of the Humvee.

Don't be fooled.

“This ain't your father's Oldsmobile,” says the June edition of “Safety Corner,” an internal newsletter published by the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned in Quantico, Va.

There have been at least 66 MRAP-related accidents between November and June, according to Defense Department statistics. Nearly 40 of those involved a rollover caused by bad roads, weak bridges or driver error.

“Road shoulders in the Middle East do not meet U.S. standards and may collapse under the weight of the MRAP, especially when the road is above grade and can fall to lower ground,” the Marine Corps newsletter cautions.

“We're certainly concerned,” said Brig. Gen. Michael Brogan, the Marine Corps officer who manages the MRAP program.

The trucks are tall and heavy, and have a raised chassis and V-shaped hulls. The high-rise design shoves the impact of an underbelly blast out and away from the crew inside. The weight keeps the vehicle from being tossed into the air.

But the lifesaving geometry has a cost.

“What you're giving up when you do that is the low center of gravity that provides you the sure-footedness,” Brogan said in an AP interview. “So what we have to do is enhance our training for troops in this kind of vehicle. The more stick time they have, the more comfortable they'll be operating it.”