(August 2001 update - new sectons on cattle and horses)
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Many birds cannot rise fast enough to evade an oncoming
car, unless they fly directly ahead of the car, using the air current it
pushes to provide extra lift. If you brake too abruptly for a bird
flying straight ahead of you, you may take away the push he needs and
send him crashing into your windshield. Lift your foot off the gas and
slow down gently, gradually, until the bird rises above your car or
peels away to one side.
Cars kill about 5.4 million cats per year -- more, by a
million-plus, than are killed in U.S. animal shelters! Most of them are
hit at night. Typically cats know cars are dangerous, but confuse the
beams from your headlights with your car itself. When the lights go by
them, they think it's safe to dash out. Expect them to make this mistake
and you'll be prepared to react if they do.
1.2 million dogs were killed on U.S. roads last year,
and most of them were likely chasing something -- a ball, a child, a
cat, a squirrel. When you see anything that a dog might chase enter the
road, look for the dog coming close behind.
Opossums feast on roadkill, a habit that gets about 8.3
million opossums a year roadkilled. A large object in the road at night
may be roadkill and an opossum, who may either freeze in your headlights
or try to run away. Opossums don't run very fast, so slow down until
you've positively identified the situation.
Common in late spring through early fall, a rabbit
scared out of the road by the car ahead of you might circle right back
into the road. A quick tap of your horn as you approach where the rabbit
went may freeze him out of harm's way.
Squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits
Squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits are among the hardest
species to avoid. All three evade predators, when on the ground, chiefly
through their ability to rapidly change directions. The surest way to
avoid a rabbit, chipmunk, or squirrel is to stop and wait until the
critter is safely out of the road. As long as you're still moving
forward, the rabbit, chipmunk, or squirrel will continue to assess your
car as a threat akin to a dog or fox, only bigger, or as a hawk, and may
keep switching and reversing course. This explains why some fairly
extensive studies have discovered that speed is not a factor in killing
squirrels, rabbits, and chipmunks: they are as likely to get hit by a
slow-moving car as one going like a bat out of hell, simply because they
zig-zag in the wrong direction, mis-guessing which way the driver will
Fortunately, it is easy to anticipate when you're likely
to see rabbit, chipmunk, or squirrel. Rabbits are most plentiful in
lightly wooded areas or alongside brushy ditches, from the end of spring
through the end of summer. They may be seen either day or night. At
night they freeze in the glare of headlights.
Chipmunks and squirrels take to the roads in greatest
number at the end of summer, when windy weather at the onset of fall
tends to litter roadsides with edible nuts. Chipmunks and squirrels will
remain plentiful on the roads in tree-lined areas until after the first
snowfall. They are usually out only in broad daylight.
In spring and early summer young beavers leave their
parents to seek their own pond. They move slowly, usually at night, and
can be hard to see -- but if you're driving near wetlands, expect them.
They typically try to cross roads at culverts.
Raccoons often travel in family groups of up to seven
members, so if one raccoon is hit, the rest may stay beside her and get
hit, too. Raccoons also scavenge roadkills. They'll turn to face a
sudden danger, often stepping into the path of a speeding car. Try to
avoid getting their attention. Don't jam on the brakes, don't
accelerate; just ease off the gas and cruise casually by.
In spring, so many turtles are hit by cars as they
migrate between breeding ponds that many species have become regionally
endangered. If you're near wetlands and see a rounded lump in the road,
assume it's a turtle until you know otherwise.
More than 100 Americans are killed each year in deer/car
collisions -- and 70% of the time the driver slowed down for one deer,
then stepped on the gas and hit another. Deer babies are as big as their
mamas in October and November, but they are still babies, and they still
follow Mama. Mamas often have two fawns, so if you see one deer, slow
down and look for two more.
In spring and summer, deer hide from danger. In fall,
when the leaves are down, they run. More than half of all deer/car
collisions occur in October and November. If you see hunters' vehicles
parked by the road, watch for frightened deer running from gunfire, or
hunters and/or dogs driving deer.
If you see a deer bolt right in front of you in daylight
or twilight during hunting season, too close even to brake, try to duck
below the dashboard with a shoulder between your head and your airbag,
if any, if you hit the deer hard. Driver fatalities tend to result from
a deer coming through the windshield after having her legs knocked out
from under her. The lower you are, the better-protected you are from
this type of accident -- but no strategy is perfect. You may get hurt no
matter what you do.
If you miss the deer, keep your head protected by your
headrest and the door post as you drive across the deer's path. We get
several reports a year of drivers being killed or wounded by hunters who
(illegally) shoot across roads at deer.
Skunks newly awakened from winter hibernation are slow
to recognize danger. When threatened, their defense is to turn their
backs and spray. If you see a skunk beside the road, don't slow down
abruptly. The skunk may think you've seen him and will attack. Act as if
you're minding your own business and he'll go on about minding his.
In July and August, a skunk may be leading four to seven
kittens across the road, and they may trail up to 20 feet behind her. If
you see one skunk, look for more before assuming it's safe to pass.
Coldblooded snakes will warm themselves on pavement in
late summer, but they often can't move away quickly when a car
approaches. If you see a straight object that looks like a stick in the
road, assume it's a snake until you know it isn't.
Woodchucks dart out on the road much like cats, hunched
low to the ground to avoid being seen. Drivers, who often mistake them
for cats, tend to allow enough time for a cat to cross in front of them;
but that fat brown cat in the road ahead may actually be a woodchuck, a
woodchuck at best moves only half as fast, and 5 million woodchucks a
year get hit by cars.
In wet weather, if you're near a pond or ditch and it's
not yet cold weather, you'll likely be seeing frogs. They'll freeze in
your headlights, so don't expect them to move. Slow down and try to
drive around them.
In winter, moose will lick road salt and travel along
ploughed roads. At night, moose are almost invisible because they are
dark, don't make sudden moves, and are tall enough that your tired eyes,
fixed to the headlit roadway, may not recognize them. Slow down in moose
country, and keep your eyes moving up and to the sides.
In case of impact, duck under your dashboard, with a
shoulder between your head and your airbag, if any. As with deer,
fatalities usually result from the animal coming through the windshield
-- but any moose/car collision can be fatal, no matter what you do.
Bears feast on roadside grass or berries, especially in
remote country, so beware of thickets close to the road. When bears bolt
across roads, they often do it at a dead run, and babies follow Mama. If
you see one bear, look for two more. And look out for bear-watchers who
have stopped their cars in the roadway.
Because I have never lived anywhere that armadillos
occurred, I have had no opportunity to observe their behavior around
cars and develop appropriate avoidance tips. Statistical data indicates,
however, that armadillos rank among the 10 mammal species most likely to
be hit. If anyone has armadillo avoidance tips, I'd like to add them to
Cattle & Horses
Watch out for cattle and horses in the road in rural
areas, especially in hilly and partially wooded areas where broken
fences are not easily seen from a distance and even large animals can be
unseen as they use dips in the road as crossing points. Dips tend to
coincide with streams, which are natural corridors for animals, of all
Both cattle and horses, like moose, can be very hard to
see at night, because they tend to be dark, and tend to stand above the
driver's visual focus, which will be where the headlights meet the
pavement. If a cow is standing at that point, the car will move forward
another eight to 10 feet before most drivers see the cow, and if a horse
or moose is there, the car may move forward another 12 feet. This
significantly reduces stopping time, especially when driving fast.
Cattle will usually break through a fence as a herd.
They will stand their ground on the approach of a threat, then move
aside slowly if they recognize the threat as larger. This increases
their likelihood of being hit, if not seen -- but cattle are
predictable, and once one member of a herd starts to move in a
particular direction, chances are good that they all will.
Horses are less predictable. Some act like cattle; some
bolt like deer.
The most important thing to do, upon suddenly
encountering either a horse or cow in the road, is stop. Don't waste
time honking or trying to outguess the animal; just stop as quickly as
you can without risking a skid. Then allow the animals time to react and
move aside, and proceed with caution.
Car collisions with horses, cattle, and moose are
frequently fatal to the driver, since they stand so high that knocking
the legs out of under the animal typically results in the carcass going
through the windshield of the vehicle, crushing the occupants.
Usually, in instances of animal/car collision, the
greatest threat is to the animal. With horses, cattle, and moose, the
greatest threat is to the driver and passengers -- and any action that
increases the threat to the animals will increase the threat to the
Be calm, be patient, and drive away alive.
It's easier and safer to anticipate animals in the road
than it is to miss them once they're in front of you. Watch for sudden
movement in roadside grass and shrubbery. Remember that most lines in
the woods are vertical -- if you see something horizontal, it may be an
Go on to Remembering
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