Animals and the road: Stop, swerve, or keep going?
As America’s roadways expand, humans continue to cross paths with the natural landscape and its animal inhabitants. The overlap between humanity and the wild is inevitable, especially as construction grows and animal populations fall victim to modern expansion.
As a driver, wildlife can be an enormous and even fatal threat. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), an average of 1-2 million collisions with large animals occur each year. Animal collisions with speeds in excess of 55mph are particularly problematic, the USDA indicates. As the number of animal-vehicle collisions (AVCs) is substantial each year, it’s critical that you know how to drive safely and what to do should you be involved in an accident.
Remote roadways and nighttime drivers are especially susceptible to wildlife, but the truth is that collisions with animals can and do happen anywhere.
While over 95% of AVCs result in no human injury, these accidents are having an enormous impact on animal populations — not just the large ones. The Wildlife-Vehicle Collision Reduction Study declares 21 animal species as federally threatened or endangered in the United States by road mortality and other major threats to survival. Some of these species include the Hawaiian goose, desert tortoise, San Joaquin kit fox, and California tiger salamander. Especially precarious is the Florida panther, which is also endangered and particularly susceptible to AVCs.
Threatened and endangered species
|Type of species||Animals at risk|
|Mammals||Lower Keys marsh rabbit, Key deer, bighorn sheep (peninsular California), San Joaquin kit fox, Canada lynx, ocelot, Florida panther, red wolf|
|Reptiles||American crocodile, desert tortoise, gopher tortoise, Alabama red-bellied turtle, bog turtle, copperbelly water snake, eastern indigo snake|
|Amphibians||California tiger salamander, flatwoods salamander, Houston toad|
|Birds||Audubon’s crested caracara, Hawaiian goose, Florida scrub jay|
Areas most at risk
Although animal-vehicle collisions can happen anywhere, the Wildlife-Vehicle Collision Reduction study indicates some areas present higher risk than others.
- In Michigan, motor vehicle collisions with deer happen about every eight minutes.
- In New York, over 75,000 deer are killed each year in vehicle crashes.
- As many as 25% of AVCs in Colorado involve wildlife.
- The odds of an AVC involving deer in West Virginia are one in 38.
These states have a much higher risk for AVCs compared to others:
States at highest risk of deer collisions in 2020
|1.||West Virginia||1 in 37|
|2.||Montana||1 in 47|
|3.||Pennsylvania||1 in 51|
|4.||South Dakota||1 in 53|
|5.||Michigan||1 in 54|
Highways vs. backroads
Highways and main roads experience collisions with animals less frequently due to the high volume of traffic throughout both the day and night. Back roads experience less traffic with significantly fewer travelers at night. With all quiet, animals can feel safe to step out from the cover of the trees and soon find themselves in the path of an oncoming vehicle. The bright lights from a vehicle can be blinding enough to disorient the animal, and trying to swerve or avoid it can put you — the driver — in peril. The study found that in nearly half of all motor vehicle accidents involving wildlife, the driver swerved in an attempt to avoid the animal.
It’s also noteworthy that 89% of all wildlife-vehicle collisions between 2001 and 2005 took place on two-lane roads. The most vehicle crashes involving wildlife happened under ideal road conditions on straight roads with dry surfaces. The highest likelihood for an AVC is in the spring and fall when animals are more active with migration, mating, or hunting. Car accidents involving deer are especially common between October and December.
Animals on the road
With some AVCs resulting in fatal injuries, there are some things to know in the event you encounter an animal during your travels.
In some states, nearly 90% of WVCs involve deer, especially white-tailed deer. However, there are many kinds of animals that are commonly involved in car accidents. Moose are one common species in some states, resultting in far greater damage to the driver than accidents with other types of animals due to size.
The size of the animal very much is a factor not just in the number of accidents but also in how drivers react. Maneuvering around a small animal is significantly easier than trying to swerve around enormous animals like moose.
Injured animals are frightened and in pain, so they may become aggressive. To be safe, keep a safe distance and wait for trained professionals to arrive on the scene to help.
Steps to take
If you encounter wildlife on the road, there are a few things you should do to ensure both your safety and that of the animal:
- Slow down – Reduce your speed to allow more time for you and the animal to react.
- Make the animal aware – Remember the phrase “deer in headlights” and use a flash of your headlights to startle the deer out of shock.
- Use your horn – A honk of the horn can be an effective way to motivate an animal that needs to move out of the way.
- Do not swerve – When you break your path, you significantly increase the chances of a collision and could carry the blame if there is an accident. Instead, stay the course and allow the animal a chance to move out of the way.
Pets on the road
Pets also account for a growing number of animal-vehicle collisions. All too easily, pets can slip out and escape from an open door or window, or they can sneak out of the car when you aren’t paying attention. The American Humane Society reports that about 10 million pets are lost each year in the United States.
Many pets can fall victim to the hazards of the road, even endangering their owners, who may try to dart into the road to try to catch a wandering pet. This can cause great danger to yourself and your pet, and it can also cause accidents with the traffic around you.
What to do if you see a lost pet
Regardless of whether or not you are able to safely secure the animal, you should contact the local authorities for help. They can dispatch someone to retrieve the pet until the owner is found. Be sure to note your address or local coordinates of where the animal was last seen. Never enter a busy roadway to pursue a pet.
If you see a lost pet on the road, find somewhere safe to pull over. Errant pets can easily cause accidents and endanger other cars on the road around you. Speaking softly and gently can help calm a frightened pet that is lost.
There are some items that can help you secure a lost or escaped pet near roads:
- Carrier – A spare cat or dog carrier can help you safety and comfortably secure a lost pet you encounter on the road.
- Slip leashes – Slip leashes are a quick and simple means to effectively secure an escaped pet and ensure that the animal isn’t able to slip away and into danger.
- Reflective vest – A reflective vest will help ensure visibility, especially if you have to venture into the roadways during hazardous road conditions, like rain or fog.
- Treats – A few treats can help entice frightened pets and establish trust.
- Blanket – A blanket can warm a trembling, scared pet and protect your car from fur or debris.
Collisions with animals
No matter how much care you exercise on the road, sometimes collisions with an accident can happen. If it happens to you, here are a few steps you should take.
What to do:
- Pull over. If possible, find somewhere outside of the path of traffic where you can safely exit your vehicle. Turn on your hazard lights so you can be seen.
- Check for damages. Confirm the safety of your passengers to ensure no one requires medical attention. Assess the state of your vehicle to determine whether it is safe to drive.
- Call the police. The police may need to file a report if there are damages to your vehicle so you can file an insurance claim with your provider. They can also assist an injured animal, direct traffic and clean up any debris from the collision.
- Contact a wildlife resource. Depending on your state, check for local organizations that you can contact for help with an injured animal.
- Document the incident. Use your camera phone to take photos of the damages and the scene so you can provide them to your insurance company.
- Contact your insurance provider.
The collision or comprehensive part of your car insurance policy may help cover damages you sustain from the accident. Contact your car insurance company to find out further details regarding your coverage and learn next steps to file a claim. Roadside assistance can be especially helpful.
Who’s at fault?
Although some federal crash databases report only 300,000 collisions per year, researchers actually believe that the number is much more because of the number of incidents that go unreported each year. If an accident causes less than $1,000 in property damage, it may not be included in official reporting. Still, studies estimate that AVCs cause more than $1 billion in property damage each year.
If you are involved in an incident, auto insurance coverage may vary. Collision coverage typically protects from other vehicles, not necessarily animals. If your collision coverage does not protect you from animals, you may need to purchase additional comprehensive insurance for your policy.
To help you avoid animal-vehicle collisions on the road, these tips can help.
- Stay aware. It’s especially important to remain extra-alert at dawn, dusk and after sunset when deer are most active and therefore more likely to wander onto the road.
- Slow down. Speed can not only greatly increase the likelihood of an accident but also the severity of one. By slowing down, you give yourself more time to react in case an animal moves into your path.
- Follow posted signs. Animal crossings are established by authorities to warn travelers of high-traffic areas for wildlife. Pay particular attention to the roads when these signs are present.
- Drive slowly. Lower speeds can give you precious seconds you need to react, so drive slowly and always remain aware of your surroundings at all times.
In the meantime, federal, state, and local authorities are working to minimize the number of AVCs that occur on America’s roads each year. The report to Congress details 34 different mitigation techniques, including the following:
- Integrated planning efforts
- Wildlife fencing
- Wildlife crossing structures
- Animal detection systems
- Public information and education
In Canada, for example, Alberta’s Banff National Park has shown incredible progress through the construction of 22 wildlife underpasses and two overpasses, all of which have decreased roadkill by an astounding 80%. Meanwhile, Montana has already begun construction on 43 different animal crossings on Highway 93 designed to help reduce AVCs involving bears, moose, elk and other wildlife.
If you see dead animals on the side of the road, contact your local health or sanitation department for cleanup. The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-888-404-3922.
Contact information varies between every city, town, and municipality, so our state resource guide can help you find the right organization to help.