It can happen in the blink of an eye. One minute you’re driving along the highway, the next a 900-pound moose has dashed in front of your car and is being swept from its feet by your bumper, crushing your windshield. Not only will this collision total your car, but it can prove fatal.
Wildlife-vehicle collisions are becoming more frequent across Canada as traffic volume and speed increases. In 2017, British Columbia reported approximately 11,000 wildlife collisions, and Ontario, according to the Globe and Mail, saw approximately 14,000.
Cottage roads, in particular, are prime spots for wildlife collisions, especially around dawn or dusk. “The road is quite attractive to [animals],” says Gayle Hesse, the program coordinator of the Wildlife Collision Prevention Program, based in Kamloops, B.C. “It’s often mowed or brushed on a regular basis and that means that the vegetation will get cut and then it resprouts nice and tender. So, it provides good forage opportunities for animals.”
Cottage roads lined with forest also provide refuge for skittish animals, but that doesn’t mean they’ll go scampering away every time they see a car. “Animals don’t necessarily recognize vehicles as a hazard,” Hesse says. Animals experience danger differently than we do, so even the sound of a horn may not scare them away. “They don’t know that the noise means move away from the road.” If startled, animals are just as likely to dash out in front of a car as they are to run away from it.
In order to avoid getting up and personal with a deer or moose, Hesse suggests creating a virtual plan, asking yourself questions like, “‘What would I do if a deer ran out into the road?’” A little mental preparation can help with the split-second decision making that might be required if an animal does dash in front of your car.
Hesse also says it’s important to expect wildlife along the side of the road. “Don’t be surprised when you see animals on the roadside. Expect that you will see them.” Not being surprised “might buy you the couple of seconds you need to react safely.” Especially in the case of deer who often travel in packs of does and fawns. “If you see deer, there is almost always more around.”
In order to be prepared for wildlife on the road, Hesse says it’s important to “improve your search patterns.” This involves looking way down the road, “farther than you might think,” and scanning the tree line, ditches, and shoulder of the road on both sides. Considering most wildlife collisions occur during moments of poor visibility—moose collisions tend to occur between dusk and midnight, and deer collisions occur around dusk and dawn—you may only catch a quick glimpse.
“You’re looking for unusual shapes or colours. If you’re driving at night, you’re looking for flickering eyes that you might see from deer or other animals,” Hesse says. With moose, you likely won’t see their eyes—standing over six feet tall, your headlights won’t reach that high. Instead, “you might see a black silhouette.”
Another telltale sign is if you see the headlights of an oncoming car flicker. “That means an animal just walked in front of them.”
If you do collide with an animal, particularly a moose or deer—or elk in some parts of Canada—Hesse says, “Use your brakes, not your steering wheel.” It’s important to slow down. Swerving into another lane endangers other drivers. It’s better to hit the animal than another car or barricade. If a collision is imminent, aim for the animal’s backend. “If you’re aiming for the backend then it’s hopefully moving away from you.”
If no one in the vehicle is injured, you should pull off the road as safely as possible, turn your hazard lights on, and point your headlights towards the carcass. Next, assuming the animal is dead, you should call the highway’s maintenance contractors and alert them to the carcass’ location. If the carcass is in the roadway, do your best to alert oncoming cars to its presence.
If the animal is still alive, keep your distance. “Wounded animals are extremely dangerous,” Hesse says. She also emphasizes that no matter how distressing it is, you should not attempt to put the animal out of its misery. “You call the maintenance contractor for the highway; you call your conservation officer services; you call the RCMP,” she says. “Someone who has professional training to come and deal with that animal.”
Hesse stresses that the most important thing to do is to stay at the scene. She recounts an instance in B.C. where a driver hit a moose and then drove away, leaving the carcass lying in one of the lanes. A second vehicle then hit the moose, bouncing into the oncoming lane and colliding with a third vehicle.
“Lots of people, they smack into something and they keep on driving. It’s kind of a shock thing,” she says. But “drivers have a reasonable duty of care to other drivers.”
So, next time you’re out for a drive on the cottage road, keep these tips in mind. It’s not just your life at stake, but the lives of other drivers and the animals.