CAUTION: Animals Crossing

If you've driven on North American roads, you've seen roadkill - animals that have been killed by passing traffic. At some time, you may have run over a small animal on the road. You may even have had the harrowing experience of striking a large animal.

Road collisions kill and maim wildlife, pets and humans, and result in millions of dollars in insurance claims. Incidents are under-reported. When a driver swerves or stops to avoid hitting an animal, the resulting mishap may not be recorded as a collision with an animal. Or, an animal that has been hit by a vehicle may move away from the road surface to die and not be recorded by the maintenance crews who remove the carcasses.

Deer and other big-game populations are on the rise. At the same time, the number of vehicles on the road goes up every year. The combination of animals with traffic has led to a rise in serious collisions. Public awareness campaigns warn motorists of the danger, and new ways to prevent vehicles from hitting wildlife are being explored.

The Season to be Wary

Collisions with wildlife are a hazard throughout the year, but they start to peak in the summer and fall. The majority of these crashes occur between dusk and dawn, when visibility is low. However, animal activity can be high during the daylight hours.

The route to a cottage or campground usually includes driving long distances on highways in forested and rural areas. Many vacationers start their trip in the wee hours of the morning or drive until well after dark.

Ungulates (hoofed mammals) that stand high on their legs, such as moose and deer, pose the most danger to vehicle occupants. If they are hit they can roll onto the hood and into the windshield or roof, resulting in extensive damage and serious or fatal injury. Moose pose a serious hazard to motorists because of their height. Deer usually “bounce” off the bumper. It is important to use the appropriate avoidance strategy for each.

Today's large deer populations pose a year-round hazard. However, deer collisions peak in October and November, which is the mating season and the time for migration to winter living areas.

Newfoundland and New Brunswick may be a moose hunter's paradise, but their abundant ungulates create a menace to unsuspecting motorists. (Equally, motorists are a menace to unsuspecting ungulates.) Those provinces report the most moose collisions during June, July and August. Moose are especially hard to see in low light because they are dark brown and their eyes do not reflect light like those of deer. Due to their height, their eyes are above most headlight beams.

Avoid Ambush

The sudden appearance of a large animal in the middle of the highway, seemingly out of nowhere, is any driver's nightmare. To protect themselves, defensive drivers adapt their speed to conditions and keep alert for wildlife.

Vigilance is the first and best defence, especially when driving on unfamiliar rural roads. Watch out for warning signs that indicate high-risk areas. Use eye-lead time and take extra care. Ask passengers to help by scanning both sides of the roadway. Use your high beams when no traffic is approaching and never over-drive your headlights — you need to see an animal in time to avoid hitting it.

Should you spot an animal beside the road, slow down until you have safely passed it. Expect more animals to follow. Animals near the roadside may bolt suddenly, so approach with caution. Turn on your flashers to warn other drivers.

If the animal is in your path, brake firmly but do not swerve to avoid it. Sound your horn in a series of short bursts to frighten it away. Provided you can slow down with control, steer around the animal but stay on the highway. Watch out for oncoming traffic.

Engineering Solutions

Corridors which wildlife have used for millennia now intersect roads. Wildlife researchers and safety officials are seeking better ways to protect motorists from wildlife and vice versa.

Parks Canada erected an eight-foot high fence along the Trans-Canada Highway through Banff National Park. To redirect animal traffic, 22 underpasses (culverts) and two 164-foot wide overpasses were built. Highway kills dropped 96 per cent.

Reflector devices have not been shown to deter deer from crossing the road, although they may cause drivers to slow down by designating high-risk road sections.

The Wildlife Warning System, developed by Saskatoon-based International Road Dynamics Inc., uses proven technologies to sense vehicles and then to warn the animals. The system monitors traffic entering a problem area. Approaching vehicles trigger a sensor, which selectively activates deterrent devices (e.g. sounds or lights) to scare the animals away from the road and let traffic pass safely. The Saskatchewan government is testing the system on a stretch of highway notorious for wildlife-vehicle collisions. There are no official results yet, but during the first year of operation deer-vehicle collisions seem to have dropped.

Similar NASA infrared technology is available in some General Motors cars. NightVisionTM enhances the driver's ability to detect potentially dangerous situations, such as the presence of animals or pedestrians, beyond the range of the headlamps.

These are a few of the techniques being tried to prevent collisions with wildlife. However, there is still no substitute for a defensive driver.