Marine Corps drops reflective vests from required biker gear

Marine Corps officials say more Marines will be more upfront with their superiors about owning motorcycles after the Corps eliminated a requirement earlier this month that ordered Marines to wear reflective safety vests while on their bikes.

As of May 8, Marines who ride motorcycles are no longer required to wear the reflective vests, according to a directive from the Marine Corps' 21st Executive Safety Board, a body that advises the Corps' Assistant Commadant, Gen. James Amos, on safety matters.

Gunnery Sgt. Sean McCullough, owner of a 2007 Triumph Speed Triple, said that while he didn't think the vests were effective at saving lives, he followed orders.

"When it was the requirement, I wore it as any good Marine would," said McCullough, a Marine stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. "A lot of us thought that the vests didn't really have the effect that maybe the Marine Corps thought they would. It did increase your visibility but it didn't seem to prevent any of the accidents we had last year."

This move comes as the Corps tries to curb rising fatalities that have seen record numbers of Marines die on motorcycles over each of the last four years. A record 25 Marines were killed in motorcycle crashes between September 2007 and October 2008, including Cpl. Jason L. Davis, a 21-year-old Marine in the Weapons and Field Training Battalion at Parris Island. Davis died July 5 after crashing his motorcycle on Sams Point Road on Lady's Island.

Eleven more Marines -- none in South Carolina -- have been killed since then, according to the Naval Safety Center

Retired Gunnery Sgt. Adam Gray, the tactical safety specialist at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort and Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, said many of those killed were wearing the reflective vests.

"Last year, we lost a record number of Marines to motorcycle mishaps and many of them were because of something beyond the rider's limits, like speeding and not knowing how to control there bike properly," he said.The few that died (who were struck by cars) were wearing the proper protective gear and the brightly colored vest didn't seem to work."

The order has been on the books since at least 2000, according to Headquarters Marine Corps in Virginia.

McCullough, who has been riding motorcycles for 14 years, said many motorcycling Marines fall into one of two camps: Those who think the vest requirement wasn't stringent enough, and those who believe Marines shouldn't be required to wear any protective gear while on their bike.

"I think we should have to wear a motorcycle-specific jacket that is designed for impact," he said. "If you're wearing a denim jacket or a long-sleeved T-shirt, you only have to be going 20 mph before that denim shreds and you start tearing into skin. You also have some Marines who think you shouldn't even have to wear a helmet, which is nuts."

The policy change does not mean the Corps is easing its stance on motorcycle safety, said Lt. Joshua Diddams,Corps spokesman at Headquarters Marine Corps in Virginia.

"The goal of this move is to encourage safety," he said. "We find that a lot of riders don't want to register their bikes with the Marine Corps because they don't want to wear the reflective vests. The Marine Corps found no correlation between reflective vests and motorcycle accidents."

Last year, the Corps ordered all Marines to register their motorcycles with their commands and to seek permission if they wanted to buy new ones. This requirement forced many Marines to hide their motorcycles from their superiors, risking punishment to avoid perceived headaches, Grey said.

"In the past, most Marines who rode motorcycles complained about the reflective vest and its ability to save lives," Gray said. "They never wanted to wear them and they didn't like the way it looked. Many Marines would not tell their command they had a bike because they didn't want to wear a vest. The order requiring vests as mandatory gear for operation was written about 20 some years ago by a person who didn't ride a motorcycle. This change was met with overwhelming enthusiasm amongst motorcycle enthusiasts."

Marines are required to wear other protective gear, including helmets, long-sleeved and long-legged clothing, full-fingered gloves and hard-soled shoes. Those who don't abide the rules are subject to non-judicial punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, according to the Corps.