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As the leaves change colour and temperatures drop, it feels like the start of a new year. It can be hard to break the habit of measuring time by a school calendar (even if we’ve been out of school a long time). This change of seasons also brings a change in activities with Fall and Winter posing some unique road safety issues. We tend to walk less and drive more with shorter days turning dark much earlier. Finishing sports practice at 7:00 PM now means a drive home in the dark and extra time needed to clear snow or ice off the car depending on where you live. TIRF Tip: Please always clear all windows, roof, hood & trunk of snow…this helps keep other drivers safe from the unexpected flying sheet of ice/snow hurtling towards them at highway speed.
In many parts of the world, this change in season means various wildlife species are likely to be more active near roadways, increasing risk for both drivers and animals. This is because roads are cleared of leaves and snow, making travel easier, and salt put on the road to reduce ice create salt pools when it melts, providing animals with needed nutrients. This blog post sheds light on the causes of these collisions and offer valuable insights on ways to prevent them.
Collisions between wildlife and vehicles can have deadly consequences for both people and animals. It may surprise you to learn that collisions are more often caused by drivers striking other vehicles or losing control of their own vehicles as they swerve to avoid animals. Between 2000 and 2020, 569 persons died in wildlife-vehicle collisions (WVCs) in Canada. While WVCs can occur at any time, Fall is the peak season for WVCs because of deer mating season and male deer are more active and aggressive during this time. Additionally, fall is when many animals are starting to prepare for winter and/or migrating, meaning they are more likely to be on the move and crossing roadways. In fact, more than one-third (n=211) of WVCs in Canada occur in the Fall between September and November (TIRF Fatality Database, 2022).
So, as you’re driving home from work, team practices, or other extra-curricular activities, remember to be alert for wildlife.
Understanding the causes behind vehicle-wildlife incidents
- Fall is a critical time for many species as they engage in mating and migration activities in preparation for winter. With shorter and darker days, animals are actively looking for food sources, and cleared roads are easier to navigate as well as forage for food as opposed to deep snow and uncertain terrain off the shoulder. Additionally, road salt also attracts animals as it melts into puddles. These conditions often lead wildlife on and near roadways as they search for mates or better feeding grounds.
- Shorter daylight hours reduces the visibility of animals, making it difficult for drivers to spot animals in time to react.
- Wildlife may venture closer to roadways in search of food sources that are more abundant in urban areas, such as roadside vegetation and discarded human food.
- Roads often divide animal habitats and act like a barrier to movements associated with the various needs of wildlife such as water and food sources or migration and mating activities. This means wildlife must cross roads to reach these destinations; however, their natural defences which evolved to protect them from predators provide no natural defence against drivers and vehicles. For instance, animals neither recognize nor understand the meaning of a horn blast from a vehicle.
Why do wildlife-vehicle collisions happen at night?
The higher frequency of reported collisions in the Fall is because animals are more active at this time year, so drivers are more likely to encounter them on or near roadways. Some animals, such as deer, are more active during Fall and Winter which is breeding season with shorter daylight hours.
While collisions can occur at any time, the risk of a WVC increases significantly at night. Why at night? Well, many animals are nocturnal, meaning they are more active at night than during the day. Hence, they are more likely to cross the road or highway in the dark. Additionally, the headlights of vehicles can be disorienting for animals, making it more difficult for them to judge distances and speeds of moving vehicles.
The consequences of wildlife-vehicle collisions can be severe for both humans and animals and result in injuries or fatalities for drivers, their passengers and wildlife.
How can I reduce the likelihood of a WVC at night?
Several strategies can help drivers avoid wildlife-vehicle collisions at night.
- Slow down and stay alert. This means obeying posted speed limits, avoiding distractions (such as using a cell phone or taking your eyes off the road to navigate increasingly complex touchscreens), and staying focused on the road ahead. Drivers should also be aware of their surroundings and watch for signs of wildlife activity, such as animal crossings or natural habitats.
- Use high beams when it is safe to do so. High beams can help drivers at night be increasing visibility of the road and giving them more time to spot animals and react accordingly. TIRF Tip: Turn off high beams when there is oncoming traffic or when following another vehicle, as this can be dangerous and distracting for other drivers.
- Be prepared to react. If you do see small wildlife on the road, it is important to know the safest strategy to prevent a collision to keep occupants and wildlife safe. The safest response to wildlife on the road is to slow down in a controlled manner and steer straight, even if the animal is in the path of the vehicle. Never swerve and hit your brakes as this is more likely to result in a collision. The exceptions to the rule are moose or elk on the road since they have much greater mass and longer legs with a higher centre of gravity (i.e., they can crush the passenger compartment of your vehicle). The safest response (although understandably unnerving) is for drivers to slow down and aim their vehicle at the flanks (rear) of the moose. This approach can minimize the risk of the moose or elk sliding across the hood of the car or crushing the passenger compartment. TIRF Tip: Most animals are not likely to remain still and since their behaviour is unpredictable, drivers cannot anticipate which direction the animal will move.
Tips to help prevent collisions with wildlife…at any time
The best course of action is to slow down in wildlife-inhabited areas especially where signs are posted, be alert to the road environment, and mentally rehearse your reaction to different potential collision scenarios.
Be prepared for wildlife at all times and be extra vigilant…
- driving one hour before and after both dusk and dawn
- in October and November
- on two-lane highways with speeds of 80 km/h or more
- if you see one animal there may be others immediately behind it
- because other drivers who swerve in response to wildlife could collide with you
- use your vehicle’s safety features such as seatbelts and headlights
- for movement and the reflective glow in the eyes of some animals
- for wildlife warning signs typically placed in high wildlife crossing and collision areas
- for flickering headlights from oncoming vehicles that may be indicating an animal crossing in front
- for vehicles ahead pulled over or suddenly slowing down to avoid possible wildlife not yet visible to you
- for passengers noting specific observations such as deer on the left
Backseat drivers are the best!
- …drive fatigued, impaired, or distracted
- …speed in wildlife areas [or anywhere] so you have more time to avoid a collision
- …litter as this attracts animals to the roadside
Many more tips are available on our Wildlife Roadsharing Resource Centre: https://wildliferoadsharing.tirf.ca/road-safety-and-wildlife/road-safety.
So, to wrap up…
Mitigating WVCs in the fall and winter is a critical aspect of road safety. By understanding the contributing factors of these collisions and adopting preventive measures, we can make our roads safer for both humans and wildlife. WVCs are a problem that is heightened at night, but vigilance to prevent these collisions is recommended 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. By taking steps to reduce vehicle speed, improve lighting, build wildlife crossings, and raise awareness among drivers, we can reduce the likelihood of these collisions and protect both human and animal lives.
When it comes to driving, the last thing you want is to encounter a wild animal on the road. But when you do, it’s important to know how to react and take into consideration the tips we shared in strategy #3. So as the days get shorter (and colder!) remember that with decreased daylight comes an increased potential for wildlife on roads. Stay alert, slow down, and be prepared to react!
#MySafeRoadHome blog author: Hannah Barrett, TIRF Researcher & Program Coordinator and Karen Bowman, Director, Communications & Programs work collaboratively as co-authors. Hannah is a criminologist and specializes in alcohol ignition interlock programs, wildlife-vehicle collisions, and impaired driving countermeasures. Karen uses her writing and blogging background to help apply TIRF’s research to real-world driving, cycling and walking.
Source documents and resources:
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
Wildlife-Vehicle Collisions in Canada | 2000-2020 https://tirf.ca/download/wildlife-vehicle-collisions-canada-2000-2020
Wildlife Roadsharing Resource Centre https://wildliferoadsharing.tirf.ca/road-safety-and-wildlife/road-safety
Daylight saving time can decrease the frequency of wildlife-vehicle collisions https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2016.0632
Canada’s winter forecast calls for the return of the BRRR, DailyHive.com https://dailyhive.com/canada/canada-winter-forecast-farmers-almanac
Transport Canada Guidelines to Limit Distraction from Visual Displays in Vehicles
Road Safety: Taming the Wild Road, TIRF Insights/Blog video PSA in partnership with Desjardins https://tirf.ca/blog/road-safety-taming-the-wild-road