Avoiding roadkill

Alert drivers pay attention to animal crossing signs because they indicate areas of greater wildlife concentration and movement.

Earlier this year, a driver rolled his tanker near Hillsborough, N.C., claiming he swerved to avoid hitting a deer. Nonetheless, the driver was charged with careless and negligent driving, according to a news account from WRAL, a TV station in Raleigh, N.C. That anecdote represents the extreme among a host of potential outcomes stemming from a vehicle/wildlife encounter.

Collisions between vehicles and wildlife and the danger of those collisions – whether real or imagined – are a major headache for drivers nationwide. Insurer State Farm estimates 1.5 million vehicles hit wildlife, mostly deer, annually, causing more than $1.1 billion in damages. Almost all the accidents involve passenger cars and deer, resulting in 150 deaths per year.

But many collisions with wildlife aren’t reported to state police. National data about accidents involving heavy-duty trucks and wildlife aren’t available as damage is relatively minor and drivers often don’t stop after the accidents or report the damage except to their carrier.

It’s safe to say that a majority of drivers who’ve been behind the wheel for awhile either have struck a deer or elk or just missed one. Tim Person has twice hit deer in his 11 years over-the-road. Once he hit a fawn and didn’t stop, as he’s been trained. The other time, he stopped after striking an adult deer to investigate the damage to his truck. “It kicked a hole in the step-up ladder into the truck,” says Person, an Atlanta trainer-driver for Covenant Transport.

David Murray of Spokane, Wash., a company driver for Western Express out of Fontana, Calif., is one of the lucky ones. The one time he saw an elk herd, he slowed, blew his horn and allowed them to cross the highway. When he spotted a deer herd, he flashed his lights at approaching traffic, which slowed enough for the deer to cross the road safely, he says.

“It’s hard because they’re unpredictable,” Murray says. “You don’t know where they’re going. I don’t speed, so that helps in my reaction time.”

Andy Austin, a company driver for Kindersley Transport in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, hit a deer in British Columbia after driving only a few months in Canada. “The deer ran out in the middle of the road, stopped, ran off and then came back, and I hit the back end of it with my truck,” says Austin, who has been driving for 15 years, primarily in England. “The deer rolled over, got up and ran away.”

Don Osterberg, vice president of safety and driver training for Schneider National of Green Bay, Wis., says wildlife accidents “aren’t an uncommon occurrence.” In 2007, the company counted 1,006 collisions with wildlife, a 0.79 hit-animal rate per million miles, or about three accidents per day, Osterberg says. Through Sept. 23 of this year, the accident number was 546.

“For the most part, these are low-dollar crashes,” Osterberg says. “The average cost in 2007 was $631, and this year it’s $1,099. That may be a lot of money, but in the grand scheme of things, with 16,000 trucks on the road, it’s not something I focus on.”

While vehicle/wildlife accidents occur in all 50 states, the leading state is Pennsylvania, according to State Farm. Other high-accident states are Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Georgia. Three of those states – Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania – also show up as the worst states for truck/animal accidents in data tracked by Schneider.

Driver training aims to minimize contact with wildlife on the road, though drivers who have completed driver training courses say the topic is discussed only briefly, if at all. Osterberg says his company’s training tells drivers that when they confront an animal in their path, they should brake to reduce the damage, even if the animal is on the roadside. However, if they can’t decelerate or stop safely, the drivers are instructed to stay in their lane and hit the animal. No one wants to strike wildlife, but it’s preferred over losing control and causing a bigger accident, he says.

“You should never swerve or take a steering action to avoid hitting an animal,” Osterberg says. “You may want to avoid hitting an animal, but you may end up in a lane-change accident, which is of higher severity because it can result in a loss of control or a jackknife or rollover. We’d much rather replace a fender than deal with a rollover accident from a lane change.”

Person says he emphasizes to his driver trainees to stay in their lane, even though the instinct is to seek to avoid contact. “If you see an animal alongside the road or in the median, slow down, because you never know what that animal will do,” he says. Austin says his company prefers its drivers “to keep going in a straight line, especially if you’re pulling a load.” He knows drivers who have drastically “slowed down and ended up in the ditch. It’s cheaper to clean off the front of your truck than have to repair it,” he says.

Drivers should pay attention to deer- or wildlife-crossing signs, Osterberg says, because placement of the signs is based on historical movements. Those signs are especially helpful when driving at night – the “red hours” between midnight and 5 a.m. when wildlife is on the move and looking for food and visibility is diminished.

“Nine times out of 10, I’ve seen wildlife at night alongside the road,” says Person, who has been a trainer for about 10 years. “You have to be extra cautious because visibility is less.”

Drivers also are instructed to raise their awareness of animals in certain months. Osterberg says mating and movement increases sharply in October and November. For example, in 2007, the number of truck/wildlife hits tracked by his department jumped to 165 in October and 185 in November – double or triple collision counts in most other months.

During these migration periods, some states post temporary signs to alert drivers to the extra traffic. Western states such as Utah, Nevada and Idaho often erect these signs in the fall months.

Sometimes road signs and driver training aren’t enough to avoid dangerous accidents with animals. Osterberg recalls a 2005 accident in Texas when a large bull broke through a fence and entered an interstate highway. The bull collided with a Schneider National truck, before becoming wedged under the tractor and jamming up the truck’s steering. The driver couldn’t steer the truck, which crossed the highway median and collided head-on with a pickup. Both the pickup driver and passenger were killed.

Where the Wild Things Are
Road signs and word of mouth may be your best bets to avoid encounters with wildlife as you drive. Schneider National, however, is testing a system that may make it easier for its drivers to minimize wildlife contacts.

The carrier is working on a project that is performing a “time-based risk assessment of the routes we run” to determine the safest routes for its drivers, says Don Osterberg, vice president of safety and driver training.

The company is studying historical crash rates on its routes at various times. “We are working on algorithms that would route drivers around known problematic areas,” Osterberg says. “At a minimum, it would alert the driver that he is entering an area of high probability of crash involvement for whatever reason.”

Osterberg says he is unsure when the program will be ready for deployment.

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