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Derek NelsonDerek Nelson has been writing the Friday Funnies since 2002. He also creates the Photo of the Week feature for this website. A long-time Naval Safety Center employee, he is head of the Media Division in the Communications and Marketing Department. He is author of more than 200 freelance magazine articles and ten books about Americana and military history.

Two Heads Are Worse Than One (When the Buddy System Falls Apart)

Posted April 18, 2012

Before I left home, back when I had to ask permission to do stuff, I always used to try to justify some proposed activity by saying that my friends were doing it. If my scheme seemed dumb enough, my Mom would trot out that classic maternal line, “And if your friends were going to jump off a bridge, I suppose you’d do that, too?”

This scene flickered through my mind as I wrote a Not-So-Funnies last November about an E-4 from a carrier who had drunk himself to the swaying-and-staggering level. Walking across town with nine fellow Sailors, they came to a bridge, where he said he was going to go for a swim and tried to climb over the railing. A buddy pulled him back, but eventually the E-4 and two others leaped into the river. According to the mishap report, everyone else "just sat back and let it happen. Some of them even helped the jumpers by looking out for bridge traffic." Two jumpers survived. Current dragged the E-4 under the bridge, where he drowned.

The Navy’s “buddy system”—a timely voice of reason when a Sailor gets a notion to do something dangerous or destructive—has been around for a long time. It makes sense (as long as one of the buddies has some sense), and it usually works. When it fails, though, it can be ugly.

For example, the two shipmates from a cruiser who left a club at 0100. The least inebriated Sailor was driving (that sounds better than it was, because his BAC was 0.154, and the passenger’s was 0.184). He was speeding, and neither was buckled up. Turning off a highway, they slammed into a pair of traffic-light poles. Both were killed.

Then there was the AM3 who was at a friend’s house one Saturday night and asked his buddy if he could take his 400cc ATV for a “test drive.” His buddy said OK. The AM3 made it all of about a block and up to 20 mph before trying to turn, losing control, and crashing into a parked car. Net: $500 in damage to the car, $900 to the ATV, and a broken leg, cracked sternum, and a torn aorta for the AM3.

These two disasters typify Buddy System Failure #1: Making things worse instead of better. These Sailors weren’t even trying (unless you define “least drunk drives” as “trying”). Buddy System Failure #2 is when a buddy gives it a half-hearted effort but backs off (for example, dragging the drunken E-4 off the bridge railing once).

Consider the AC1 who lent an AC2 his motorcycle so he could zip over to a nearby convenience store for cigarettes. The AC1 knew that the AC2 didn’t have a motorcycle license and hadn’t taken the BRC. He offered his buddy a helmet, which his buddy declined. Thus, the helmet was able to protect the passenger foot peg when the AC2 ricocheted off two cars (one parked, one moving) and crashed into a third car (parked). Multiple injuries for the AC2, who missed 13 days of work and spent a month on limited duty; $2,300 in damage to the motorcycle. Guess whose insurance went up.

Buddy System Failure #3 is when the participants had a good plan, they just didn’t stick to it. Such as the IC3 and ET3 who were drinking at a local bar and who called another IC3 to come pick them up. He arrived, took the ET3's keys, and then started drinking himself, possibly celebrating his shipmates’ good headwork or rewarding himself for being such a responsible guy. They climbed into the ET3's car, and the so-called “designated driver” promptly crashed into a tree. For the record, a designated driver doesn’t have the collateral duty of “drinking buddy.”

The only time two heads are better than one is when both of them are alert and managing risks. When one is distracted and the other is confused, then one plus one equals one-half. Ditto when the mouth on one of the heads has been serving as a conduit for several beers or shots in the past hour.

There’s an old saying that, when it comes to contributing productive effort to a chore, one boy is worth one boy. Two boys are worth half a boy. And three boys aren’t worth a darn thing. If you doubt this wisdom, check out the traffic-wreck stats for teenage drivers when they have passengers compared to when they don’t. And if you think, “Well, we’re not talking about boys, we’re talking about men,” check out the latest research on brain development and decision-making.

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