Too-Close Encounter with Moose

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moose in roadLate in the afternoon on June 29, 2000, I joined a club that’s not as exclusive as you might think. It’s the drivers-who’ve-hit-a-moose-in-a-vehicle club, and that year in Maine alone we had a membership of 640.

I joined the club not far from the Allagash River in the northern part of the state. Cruising alone around 50 mph in a Toyota pickup on a logging road, I did what every driving school graduate knows not to do: I took my eyes off the road, in this case to glance down at a map for a second or two. When I looked back up, I quickly discovered I would soon be sharing the road with a large herbivore, which was now trotting out from the scrubby birch and alders. I recall two fleeting thoughts in the milliseconds before impact.

First, I was struck by how instantly one can fully apprehend that life is about to take a distinctly unpleasant turn. My second thought was, “Oh, I really don’t want to be kicked to death.”

Just a few days earlier I had been chatting with a neighbor about moose collisions. He had quietly explained that the problem with moose wasn’t just that you might die instantly when all 1,000 pounds of it came crashing through your windshield. The more alarming problem was if neither you nor the moose were killed on impact. The dazed and wounded animal, now panicky and disoriented, would flail about in an effort to extricate itself. The moose, in short order, would kick you to death.

The impact that afternoon arrived with a sudden crunch, followed by an odd and furry eclipse in which the truck’s cab grew dark as the moose careened across the hood and into the windshield. I closed my eyes, hammered down on the brakes, and flattened myself across the passenger seat.

Why did I do this? Perhaps I thought the moose would continue right on through the back window, leaving me unscathed. Well, that didn’t happen. But I’m pleased to report one other detail: I wasn’t kicked to death, either. “The dynamic process is very complex,” says Magnus Gens, explaining to me precisely what happens when a car hits a moose. “The behavior of moose bodies is — how should I put this — very special.”

Magnus, who lives in Sweden, has thought more than the average person about the moose-automobile interface. He’s currently working on the Gripen fighter jet project at Saab Aerosystems, but three years ago he re-engineered the moose crash-test dummy for Saab’s car test center. The dummy is exactly what it sounds like: a life-size and durable faux moose that can be rammed repeatedly.

Moose collisions are not an idle matter in Sweden. An estimated 250,000 moose roam an area about two and a half times the size of New England, and Sweden on average records more than a dozen moose collisions every day. (By comparison, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts are home to perhaps 40,000 moose, and the four states average about three collisions per day.)

Designing the dummy was not just a matter of hammering together a gangly quadruped out of logs and two-by-fours. The dummy has to behave precisely like a moose upon impact. This requires some complex engineering, Magnus says, especially for the legs, which have to give way like the real thing.

The legs of a moose are uncommonly long — around 4 feet — putting virtually all of the heavy body well above the hood of a standard-size automobile. A car tends not to slow much upon hitting the legs, so a crash with a moose is not akin to hitting a tree or a telephone pole, with driver being hurled into windshield or air bag. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the moose’s spindly and insubstantial legs shatter almost immediately, then behave “almost like steel ropes,” says Magnus. The stubby cloven hooves become wedged under the moving car, and the now-ropey legs sling the bulk of the moose downward at an accelerating speed while the driver hurtles directly into its path.

Windshields are designed to keep out insects, rain, and the occasional pebble. They are not engineered to deflect a moose traveling at high velocity. So the windshield shatters, and the moose often crushes one or both of the corner posts that support the roof and hold the windshield in place. The moose ends up in the front seat, or in higher-speed accidents, in the back seat. “We have beams and welding protecting us from every side except the windscreen,” notes Magnus.

The Holy Grail in moose-proofing a car is to design it such that the passenger compartment remains inviolate, and a hit moose is deflected over the top. How to best design this is the subject of some debate; Saab and Volvo by most accounts manufacture the most moose-proof cars by reinforcing the corner posts, but considerable room for improvement exists. One Norwegian inventor has been peddling a patented design for a third corner post that would bisect the windshield, making the car rather more tank-like.

Don’t look for such improvements at your local auto dealer, though. Magnus says his moose dummy has seen little action since it was first tested on three cars — two brand-new Saabs and a used Volvo — after which the data was neatly filed away. The market for a moose-proof car happens to be quite small — the population of areas where moose collisions are a problem simply isn’t large enough to move the whole market. “It’s rather sad,” Magnus says. “If moose were all over North America and Japan, you would probably see some changes.”

Building what amounts to a mobile bunker to defend against herds of errant moose may seem an overreaction. But New Englanders may not think it such a bizarre notion for long. Moose are steadily marching south into populated areas, and the odds of having an impromptu meeting with a moose are correspondingly rising. More than 1,000 moose collisions are recorded in a typical year in New England, and that number stands to swell.

hDrivers across the northern tier of New England from Burlington, Vermont, to Houlton, Maine, have long been keenly aware of the dangers. Last June, Dana Carbonneau, a 46-year-old principal at Orleans Elementary School, was driving home on Vermont’s Route 14 from the school graduation to his home in Barre. Around 9:00 that night, a moose stepped out into the roadway; he hit it, then veered into the pathway of an oncoming truck.

Carbonneau, who had been principal at the school for eight years, died before he reached the hospital. His students hung a banner across the front of the school reading, “We miss you, Mr. C.” He was the 11th Vermonter to die in a collision with a moose.

Cedric Alexander, a state wildlife biologist in Vermont, says that while the Vermont moose herd hasn’t grown much in recent years, the moose are starting to stir, exploiting new ranges and trending south. Drivers in the state’s Northeast Kingdom have been trained to be alert for moose for the past couple of decades, but residents of southern Vermont are only beginning their education. “It’s a new phenomenon down near the Massachusetts state line,” Cedric says.

And beyond. The Massachusetts herd numbers between 500 and 700 moose and is growing. The state recorded its first crash fatality last July, when 24-year-old Amber Ronzoni of Webster struck a moose on the turnpike. And moose are increasingly colonizing Connecticut — since the state’s first collision in 1995, eight others have taken place. Moose are even breeding in Connecticut now, with at least 25 moose calves identified since 2000.

Not surprisingly, Maine is ground zero for the moose issue, since it’s home to three out of every four New England moose — about 30,000 in all. Around 700 moose collisions are logged in the average year, with three or four typically resulting in fatalities.

“More people are moving to wildlife areas, and the amount we drive has increased an incredible amount,” says Karen Morris, a wildlife biologist with Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife. “That combination has really become an issue.”

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the northernmost part of the state. Aroostook County, a sprawling county the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, claims a disproportionate number of crashes: 650 were reported between 2000 and 2002.

But it’s not statistics that have people riled up. The issue has become personal. Two of the four drivers killed last year were Aroostook County residents — Eugene Levesque was riding a motorcycle when he hit a moose, and Norman Thibodeau was in a convertible. The vague sense among many here is that moose have declared war on the residents, and the residents are ready to take up arms and fight back.

Some residents have called for sharpshooters to help manage the population. Around 2,700 people signed a petition to the state’s wildlife department last August, asking that the population of moose be dramatically culled in northern Maine.

The state did agree to boost the number of moose permits issued in the 2004 hunting season to a total of 2,895, an increase of 310 over last year. Most of the new permits, the state announced, will be issued for areas where moose collisions have been a problem.

At night, moose are especially deadly — studies in Maine found that the hour between 9:00 and 10:00 p.m. is the worst for moose collisions, and some 70 percent of all moose crashes occur between 7:00 p.m. and midnight. The fur on a moose is as dark as asphalt, and headlights tend to be aimed low along the road surface, shining unhelpfully through a moose’s spindly legs. Moose have never developed the deer-like habit of staring vacantly at oncoming cars, so their eyes tend not to be reflected in headlights. And moose utterly lack road sense — there’s no guessing what a moose will do around a car.

In 1998, Maine established a committee with members from five state agencies to consider options for reducing moose crashes. The committee has concluded that it has fairly limited options: make the roads safer or make drivers more cautious. Or both.

An obvious solution — keeping moose off the road with tall fences — has been proven effective elsewhere, but it’s not cheap. Sweden has done this to good effect, lining major arteries with fencing, and it’s been done in some northern U.S. states, including Alaska. But Maine figures the cost would be $20 to $25 per foot — fiscally impractical for the state’s thousands of miles of rural roadways where the problem is endemic. Even the simple expedient of reducing winter road salt, thus eliminating the salty roadside puddles that attract moose in the spring, is difficult since alternatives are so costly.

A more practical approach may be to give drivers a heads-up when there’s a moose in the road, offering enough warning to avert a collision. Proposed methods range from high-tech to low-tech. Among the high-tech ideas is a system of light beams edging the road, which would create a virtual fence that, when crossed by an animal, would trigger flashing signs to warn motorists of an imminent hazard. A pilot project recently was proposed for a section of Maine’s Interstate 95, where two fatalities have occurred, but the bids were unexpectedly high, and the state’s now reconsidering.

A less-involved way of giving a visual warning is to employ optical markers — reflectors inset along the road’s edge or along tightly spaced posts at the road’s edge. A nighttime driver would see an unbroken line of light reflecting back from the headlights — unless a moose were lumbering onto the roadway, in which case the pattern would be disrupted. Another variation is to paint an exceedingly wide and highly reflective stripe along the edge of the road, which would also provide a visual cue as the animal entered the road.

Gerry Audibert of the Maine Department of Transportation says that one of the more promising advances is the personal night-vision technology already offered by some car companies, most notably Cadillac. An infrared sensor scans the road far ahead, projecting a ghostly image of impending hazards on the inside of the windshield, allowing the driver to “see” a moose well before a possible collision.

The downside: Maine’s frequently hilly and curvy roads would limit the effectiveness. And the cost (about $1,500) rules it out for all but the most affluent. Only one Cadillac with an infrared system was sold last year in northern Maine, and the dealer said it sat for a long while.

Then there’s driver education. Maine has widely distributed a poster showing where moose collisions have occurred. It’s a sobering collection of colorful dots — blue for spots with four collisions, yellow for five, etc. — graphically suggesting that you’re scarcely safe anywhere in the state.

New Hampshire launched a popular “Brake for Moose” campaign, with roadside signs and bumper stickers urging caution. The stickers have become hot commodities among tourists and have even been spotted on American armored tanks in the Middle East. Although the New Hampshire warning may seem curiously self-evident, it is part of a broader package to increase driver awareness that moose are out there, and moose can kill.

New Hampshire recorded its most recent moose collision fatality on May 29. Derek Witherell, a popular 17-year-old high school junior from Antrim, struck a moose, lost control of his car, and crashed upside-down into a swamp. Passersby, including fellow high school students, pulled Witherell and his passenger out of the car and tried to revive Witherell at the scene. He died the following day. Watching for moose suddenly took on a tragic air in the Monadnock region.

For its part, Vermont has been posting 40 mph speed limit signs near the most troublesome moose crossings. “If you get someone to drop down to about 40 mph, it feels very safe,” says Cedric Alexander. “You can stop if a moose jumps out in front of you, or if you do hit, the damage isn’t as bad.”

My Allagash moose and I collided at an oblique angle — in truth, the moose hit me, plowing into the driver-side front panel, then careening across the hood before slamming into the windshield. The driver-side corner post took the brunt of the impact, bending slightly downward, but held long enough to keep the moose out of my lap.

With the brake pressed to the floor, I skidded a few dozen feet; the moose shattered the windshield and stove in the hood impressively, but the safety glass held except for a few confetti-like shards. As I slid to a halt, the moose rolled off the hood, then trotted into the spruce and fir, not visibly unnerved by our encounter.

The same couldn’t be said for me. I sat in the truck in the middle of the road for several long moments before I gathered my wits enough to pull off, then get out and assess the damage. The truck took a $2,500 hit, I’d learn later. But I was lucky — my sole injury consisted of a small cut on my left ear, the result of the moose-shattered sideview mirror sailing in the open window.

Two thoughts came to mind as I leaned against the truck that sunny summer afternoon. The first was, “Well, that was close.” The second was that the moose just might have been nature’s way of telling me to slow down and enjoy the passing view.
And I’ve been doing that ever since.

Excerpt from “Deadly Encounters,” Yankee Magazine, September 2004.

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