With the spread of COVID-19, Spring 2020 looks quite different from years past.
As restrictions are lifting, more vehicles and people are on the road than we’ve seen in the past two months. These strategies are designed to protect everyone, particularly vulnerable populations and essential service workers.
However, the movement of wildlife continues to be predictable. At this time of year, warmer weather and better road conditions also bring an increase in wildlife-vehicle collisions, many of them resulting in injuries and fatalities. Between 2000 and 2014, there were 474 deaths due to collisions with wildlife; almost half of them (49.8%) involved moose and one-quarter (26%) involved deer.
On a positive note, less traffic on urban and rural roads may see a reduction in fatalities and injuries as a result of wildlife-vehicle collisions. Reducing collision-related hospital visits is more important than ever since the current situation with COVID-19 has placed an incredible strain on our health care system. Fewer road crashes reduce the burden on emergency rooms and enable health care professionals to focus on patients with the virus. And while lower traffic volumes on roads may certainly tempt some drivers to speed, it is critical they continue to be alert and follow the rules of the road. Vigilance and compliance with all posted speed limits can help prevent collisions, enabling essential service workers to get to and from work safely and protecting our supply chain at this critical time.
In addition, lower speeds and alert drivers protect many smaller animals often killed on the road during Spring and Summer months; a time when new babies are being born and animals are migrating. Several species of turtles and frogs are killed in large numbers, and many of them play an essential role in our eco-system and are deemed at-risk or endangered by provincial legislation.
Strategies to help drivers reduce risks and anticipate where they may encounter wildlife can prevent avoidable collisions and ensure COVID-19 patients receive the health services they need.
Spring thaw brings the increased presence of wildlife
Spring is a busy time of year as animals begin migrating as winter ends. Large animals, such as moose, deer, and bears often frequent salt pools at the side of the road created during the spring snow melt. This means we can expect to see more of these larger animals on our roadways during this period. Large animals also prefer to travel roads, not only because they encounter fewer barriers and the landscape is flat, but the open shoulders and low grasses along the side of roads support the growth of shrubs which are an important food source for deer and moose. As a result, traveling deer and moose can often be spotted beside or even on roads, meaning these larger animals are regularly involved in wildlife-vehicle collisions.
Collisions with smaller animals may be less likely to result in injuries or deaths, however, these collisions can negatively impact the environment. Animals including squirrels, chipmunks, turtles, and birds are at high risk for these collisions. This is important to consider as smaller animals play a large role in the ecosystem. For example, birds nest along roads and are often found near water. Birds control insects as they are their primary food source. They also pollinate plants, spread seeds, and even keep coral reefs alive through their droppings that fertilize reefs. A specialist on species at risk and biodiversity with the Canadian Wildlife Federation reported turtles have the highest number of deaths on busy roads, but with less traffic, turtle road deaths may decrease and this may produce a slight bump in the turtle population.
Reduced road traffic may influence animal behaviours
Fewer cars on the road as a result of the pandemic may also impact the behavioural patterns of animals and for this reason continued vigilance by drivers is important. With less traffic noise, animals may also be more confident coming out to roam more freely, including on roadways. Depending on your location across Canada, it’s possible drivers will see more turtles, frogs, foxes, in addition to racoons, skunks, and several species of larger wildlife such as moose, elk, deer, wolves and coyotes.
There are a number of prevention technologies advertised to scare animals away. Specifically, deer whistles promise the high-pitched sounds created by the air passing through them as a result of the vehicle’s speed will scare the deer and stop them from coming onto the road. These whistles have not been proven to be effective and in some cases, the deer will even run towards the noise to see what it is. It’s also important to note that many animals don’t associate the sound of vehicles with danger. The most effective method of prevention is to stay alert, drive within the posted speed limit, pay attention to surroundings, and remember that animal movements are unpredictable.
What to do if you see small wildlife on the road
If you do see small wildlife on the road, it is important to know how to react safely, for you, other road users and where possible to keep wildlife safe. The safest response to wildlife on the road is for drivers to slow down in a controlled manner and steer straight, even if the animal is in the path of the vehicle. It is important to remember you shouldn’t slam on your brakes. Slamming on your brakes could result in a collision with vehicles behind you as drivers will not expect the sudden slowing or stopping. Also, slow down when there are road signs warning of animals and pay extra attention to the ditches and sides of the road, especially at dawn and dusk when visibility decreases.
What to do if you see LARGE wildlife on the road
Now, it’s a different story altogether if you see a moose on the road. In this case, the safest response is for drivers to slow down and aim their vehicle at the flanks (rear) of the moose. In aiming for the flank of the moose, it will minimize the risk of the moose sliding across the hood of the car. This is important as it may minimize the damage caused by the full weight of the moose’s upper body impacting the windshield and roof of the vehicle. Most animals are not likely to remain still and since their behaviour is unpredictable, drivers cannot anticipate which direction the animal will move. This is especially true of deer whose natural defence is to dart and zigzag to avoid predators. Therefore, swerving to avoid animals is often much more dangerous for drivers and animals, and is not recommended in most situations.
We are all certainly navigating a new normal in these challenging times, but the research behind wildlife on roads is still an important consideration for those still needing to use our community roads and highways.
More information on safely sharing the road with wildlife can be found online at TIRF’s Wildlife Roadsharing Resource Centre (WRRC) along with free downloads of fact sheets, flashcards and other helpful tools.
Say something, the life you save could be yours.
#MySafeRoadHome blog author: Hannah Barrett is a research associate at the Traffic Injury Research Foundation. She is a criminologist and specializes in alcohol ignition interlock programs, wildlife-vehicle collisions, and impaired driving countermeasures.
Canadian wildlife-vehicle collisions: an examination of knowledge and behavior for collision prevention, 2019, Vanlaar, W. G., Barrett, H., Hing, M. M., Brown, S. W., & Robertson, R. D. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30876509
Management of roadside salt pools to reduce moose-vehicle collisions, 2007, Leblond, M., Dussault, C., Ouellet, J-p., Poulin, M., Courtois, R. https://www.wildlifecollisions.ca/docs/leblondmngtsaltlicks2006.pdf
Wildlife-Vehicle Collisions: 2000-2014, 2018, Traffic Injury Research Foundation https://tirf.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/WRRC-Wildlife-Vehicle-Collisions-2000-2014-Factsheet-5.pdf