by Merritt Clifton
Half an hour ago I struck and killed my first deer in more than 40 years of driving in heavily populated deer habitat.
A half-grown fawn, she bolted into the road from the inside of a curve on an uphill grade, while my headlights were pointed away from her. By the time the lights swung toward her, she had already crossed the center line.
Even though I was driving about five miles an hour below the posted speed limit, and got my foot off the gas pedal, I was unable to hit the brake before I hit her and most likely broke her neck on impact.
She flew 20 feet through the air, hit her head on landing, and was already dead when my wife Beth ran to her side moments later.
The good news
That’s the bad news. The good news is that 10 minutes later, following some of the same advice below that I have offered for decades about driving with constant awareness of the animal habitat alongside roads, I was able to brake in time to give Beth her first-ever sighting of a rare creeping vole, who scurried across the road unharmed at about half the pace of the typical rodent.
Avoiding animals may not always be possible, but the average driver can save many animal lives by becoming above average in just one respect: recognizing what animals are likely to appear in each place that he or she drives, and correctly anticipating what those animals’ behavior will be when they are startled by an oncoming car.
1) The most important tip of all:
It is easier and safer to anticipate animals in the road than it is to miss them once they are in front of you. Watch for motion in roadside grass and shrubs. Remember that most lines in the woods are vertical. If you see something horizontal, it may be an animal.
2) Usually the safest thing to do, upon suddenly meeting any animal in the road, is to calmly slow down, and if necessary, stop.
Don’t honk or try to outguess the animal, and don’t slam on your brakes. Just slow down as quickly as you can without risking a skid, and stop, if necessary, as gently as you can. Allow the animal time to react and move aside, and proceed with caution.
3) Should you try to rescue an animal from the road, use your car as a shield against oncoming traffic, with your four-way flashers on.
4) Look for the second deer––and the third!
A record 210 Americans were killed in deer/car collisions in 2003, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The annual toll has remained around 200 per year.
Studies indicate that up to 70% of all deer/car crashes occur when a driver slows for one deer, then steps on the gas and hits another. Fawns soon grow as big as their mamas, but continue to follow mama for a year or more. A doe will often have two fawns, so if you see one deer, slow down and look for two more.
5) Be extra careful in hunting season.
In spring and summer, deer hide from danger. In fall, when the leaves are down, they run. More than half of all deer/car collisions occur in October and November.
The rut (mating season) is one cause of this, but the peak for collisions coincides more closely with the peak days for hunting than with the peak of rut.
If you see hunters’ vehicles parked by the road, watch for frightened deer running from gunfire, or hunters driving deer. At night, look for disoriented deer who have been driven out of their home range by hunters, and are trying to find their way back.
6) If you collide with a deer, duck!
Driver deaths tend to result from a deer flying through the windshield after having her legs knocked out from under her. The lower you are, the safer you are when this happens.
7) Brake gently for birds.
Many birds cannot rise fast enough to evade an oncoming car without using the air current the car pushes to provide extra lift. If you brake too abruptly for a bird flying straight ahead of you, you may take away the push he needs and send him crashing into your windshield. Lift your foot off the gas and slow down gently, gradually, until the bird rises above your car or peels away to one side.
8) Watch for intoxicated birds!
Birds may fly into the road when close to potentially intoxicating food sources, such as pyracantha berries, any sort of fermenting fruit, or freshly sprayed fields, where dying insects may become a lethal temptation.
9) When you see anything enter the road that a dog might chase, look for the dog!
Several hundred thousand dogs are killed on U.S. roads each year. Most are chasing something–a ball, a child, a cat, a squirrel, a bicyclist or jogger, even the cars that hit them.
10) Cats know cars are dangerous, but make the wrong moves.
Most roadkilled cats are hit at night. Typically cats know cars are dangerous, but appear to confuse the beams from a car’s headlights with the car itself. This may be because outdoor cats are mostly nocturnal, and perceive the danger as being from exposure by the headlights, rather than from being crushed by the tires.
Accordingly, cats usually hunker down in roadside ditches or among vegetation and try to avoid being caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. When the lights go by them, cats think it is safe to dash out––just as the car reaches them. Expect cats to make this mistake and you will be prepared to react if they do.
Cars killed about 5.4 million cats per year in the early 1990s––more than were killed in U.S. animal shelters! Since then both the roadkill toll on cats and the shelter toll have plummeted, to about 500,000 and two million, respectively, but only because the advent of neuter/return programs has markedly reduced the feral cat population.
11) Opossums play possum.
Opossums feast on roadkill, a habit that gets about 8.3 million opossums a year roadkilled. A large object in the road at night may be roadkill plus an opossum, who may either freeze in your headlights or try to run away.
Opossums don’t run very fast, and sometimes play possum in front of cars, pretending to be dead in hopes of not being disturbed. Slow down until you have positively identified any situation involving an opossum.
12) Armadillos jump.
Armadillos “seem similar in habits to opossums,” says Pat Hayes, an ANIMALS 24-7 roadkill prevention tip sheet user who has a lot more experience with them than we do. “They are slow, short-sighted, and cannot run out of the way fast. They seem to be attracted to the grass verges of roads, often several together, and wander onto the highway at night.
“Judging from the roadkills one sees, which are usually intact corpses at the edge of the highway,” Hayes says, “I would guess that most of them are side-swiped because they cannot get out of the way quickly enough. Watch for ‘bumps’ near the road, especially at night. If you see an armadillo, slow down and expect others nearby. You will have to drive around them, particularly on the highway, as they are not fast enough to avoid a moving vehicle.”
Partially contradicts Rea Cord, executive director for the Humane Society of Elmore County in Wetumpka, Alabama, “Armadillos are surprisingly fast––not slow at all when they don’t want to be. Unfortunately, armadillos have an odd, but devastating reaction to fear when it comes to cars. When armadillos are startled they very often spring straight up into the air. Many are killed that way, as a driver tries to straddle them and they spring straight up into the undercarriage.”
13) Rabbits run in circles.
A rabbit scared out of the road by the car ahead of you may circle right back into the road. This is especially likely with varying hares, the rabbit species most often seen throughout the U.S.
A quick tap of your horn as you approach where the rabbit went may freeze him out of harm’s way––but not always.
A rabbit racing out in front of you might also be under pursuit by a fox or coyote, who will usually stop, or a dog, who may not, or a hawk, owl, or eagle, who may already be in mid-strike, at approximately your eye level.
14) Squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits zig-zag.
Squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits are among the hardest species to avoid. All three evade predators, when on the ground, chiefly through their ability to rapidly change directions.
The surest way to avoid a rabbit, chipmunk, or squirrel is to stop and wait until the critter is safely out of the road. As long as you are still moving forward, the rabbit, chipmunk, or squirrel will continue to assess your car as a threat akin to a dog or fox, only bigger, or as a hawk, owl, or eagle, and keep switching and reversing course.
This explains why some fairly extensive studies have discovered that speed is not a factor in killing squirrels, rabbits, and chipmunks: they are as likely to get hit by a slow-moving car as one going like a bat out of hell, simply because they zig-zag in the wrong direction, mis-guessing which way the driver will swerve.
Fortunately, it is easy to anticipate when you are likely to see rabbit, chipmunk, or squirrel. Rabbits are most plentiful in lightly wooded areas or alongside brushy ditches, from the end of spring through the end of summer. They may be seen either by day or by night. At night they freeze in the glare of headlights.
Chipmunks and squirrels take to the roads in greatest number at the end of summer, when windy weather at the onset of fall tends to litter roadsides with edible nuts. Chipmunks and squirrels will remain plentiful on the roads all year in tree-lined areas where there is no snow cover, and in snow country will continue to appear until after the first snowfall that stays down. They are usually out only in broad daylight.
15) Watch for beavers near culverts.
In spring and early summer young beavers leave their parents to seek their own pond. They move slowly, usually at night, and can be hard to see but if you are driving near wetlands, expect them. They typically try to cross roads at culverts.
16) Raccoons travel in families.
Raccoons often travel in families of up to seven members. If one is hit, the rest may stay beside her and get hit too. Raccoons also scavenge roadkills, so watch for raccoons around any roadkill site.
17) Raccoons often turn to face danger.
Raccoons may respond to an approaching car as they would to a predator they cannot outrun, turning to try to face the threat down, and thereby often stepping into the path of a speeding car.
18) Raccoons, skunks, and porcupines prefer to mind their own business.
If a raccoon, skunk, or porcupine is directly ahead, you will have to stop to let the animal escape.
Otherwise, the safest tactic around raccoons, skunks, and porcupines is to avoid attracting their notice. Don’t jam on the brakes, don’t accelerate; just ease off the gas and cruise on by. Raccoons, skunks, and porcupines who do not feel threatened will just mind their own business.
19) Beware of large dark animals: feral pigs, cattle, bison, horses, elk, moose, and bears.
Feral pigs, cattle, bison, horses, elk, moose, and bears are all most often hit in hilly and partially wooded areas where broken fences are not easily visible and even large animals can be unseen as they cross roads at dips. Dips tend to coincide with streams, which are natural animal corridors.
Feral pigs, cattle, bison, horses, elk, moose and bears are all hard to see at night, because they tend to be dark, and except for pigs, tend to stand above the driver’s visual focus, which will be where the headlights meet the pavement.
If a cow or bison is standing where the headlights meet the pavement, the car will move forward eight to 10 feet before most drivers see the cow, and if a horse, elk, or moose is there, the car may move forward another 12 feet. This markedly reduces stopping time, especially when driving fast.
Car collisions with pigs, cattle, bison, horses, elk, moose, and bears are frequently fatal to the driver. Hitting any of these species results in significant impact; knocking the legs out from under the taller species typically results in the body of the animal going through the windshield of the vehicle, crushing the occupants.
20) Beware of herd behavior.
Cattle and bison will usually break through a fence as a herd. They will stand their ground at the approach of a threat. This increases their likelihood of being hit, if not seen but cattle and bison are predictable, and once one member of a herd starts to move in a given direction, chances are good that they all will.
The responses of horses, elk, and moose are harder to anticipate. Some act like cattle; some bolt like deer.
21) Pigs and bears forage along roadsides at night.
Pigs and bears are often not seen at all, until too late. If you see a dark mass where you should see road, think pig or bear. Fortunately, pigs and bears rarely linger in roads. Pigs, however, often eat acorns alongside roads, and bears forage for berries in roadside ditches. Both pigs and bears may be hit on narrow roads because they are focused on the acorns or berries, not the traffic.
22) Pigs and bears cross roads on the run.
Where traffic is fast and frequent, pigs and bears usually cross roads on the dead run. Females tend to be followed by their offspring, so as with deer, if you see a pig or a bear, look for several more.
23) Frogs like wet weather.
In wet weather, if you are near a pond or ditch and it’s not yet cold, you’ll likely see frogs. Some species will freeze in your headlights. Others will just keep hopping. Slow down and try to drive around them.
24) Turtles look like rocks.
If you see a “rock” in the road that looks larger than rocks in roads usually are, or seems to move even just slightly, think “turtle.”
Turtles tend to try to look more like rocks when perceiving danger, by pulling in their heads and legs to hide inside their shells. As most drivers try to avoid hitting rocks, this would seem to be a good survival strategy. However, research by Western Carolina University psychology professor Hal Herzog and Clemson University student Nathan Weaver indicates that about one driver in 50 hits turtles deliberately.
Small wonder, therefore, that roadkills appear to be among the major reasons for drastic declines in turtle populations throughout the U.S.
25) If you stop to rescue the turtle, use your car as a shield against traffic, with four-way flashers on.
Always move the turtle to the side of the road that the turtle is heading toward, as they tend to migrate along rigidly set routes.
26) Coldblooded snakes often warm themselves on roads.
If you see a straight object that looks like a stick in the road, assume it is a snake until you know it isn’t.
Late in the day, as the temperature drops, snakes may go into torpor and be unable to move quickly without help.
27) Watch for falling birds & squirrels.
If trees arch over a road, fledgling birds may fall from nests into the road in late spring. If power lines cross a road, squirrels may fall off while trying to use the wires as a corridor from tree to tree. Animals who fall into roads usually survive the fall itself, only to be hit by cars moments later.