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When you meet a moose on the road, the moose wins

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Adam Denham and what's left of his sports car Adam Denham and what's left of his sports car

The ever-growing excitement of encountering wildlife

Adam Denham wasn’t doing anything special. In fact, he was bored, wasn’t ready for bed, and thought he might just drive around a bit, see if anyone else was out and about at close to midnight in Clark Fork. It was cold outside so he didn’t take the time to completely clear the ice from his windshield before hopping into his Datsun 280ZX, and then he drove too fast in a small town where the speed limit is 25 mph. Neither of those facts helped him much when the approximately one thousand pound cow moose stepped onto the highway in front of him less than a mile from his house as he headed east toward Montana.

Of all wildlife/vehicle encounters, moose are generally the most dangerous. In part it’s because their weight makes for a massive obstacle to hit at any speed, but in part it’s also their size—those gangly legs are generally the part that gets hit by the average car, causing the moose to be flipped into the vehicle.

Which is exactly what happened to Adam. The moose’s legs hit his car on the right front fender, causing her body to crash into the windshield, roll over the top of the car and then down the back. The moose died. So did the car.

“I can buy another used car like this for less than what it would cost me to fix this one,” Adam explained as he looked over the crushed windows and dented body. Which is what he hopes to do as the car itself runs just fine, and he can use it for spare parts.

“We see that sometimes,” explained Bob Anderson, who for 20 years has owned and operated Anderson’s Autobody in Sandpoint. Bob says that with the price of parts and paint these days, repairs from a wildlife encounter are rarely inexpensive. “You can figure around $2,500 on the low end,” he said, though he pointed out that it all depends on what you hit, how fast you were going, where the animal hit and what you were driving. Front end impacts often cause damage to headlights, hoods, and heating and cooling systems—all expensive parts to replace. If you have collision coverage on your vehicle insurance, you can often make repairs for the cost of your deductible, but older cars carrying only liability coverage offer no insurance for repairs if you hit a deer, moose or bear—and often aren’t worth the cost of the repair anyway.

Although wildlife can be seen on the highways at any time of year, they’re particularly prevalent during the fall (when the imperatives of the rut make wildlife especially mobile—and when the presence of hunters in the woods does appear to make some wildlife more likely to hang out near the highways) and during times like we’re seeing right now, when deep snow and cold temperatures send the animals in search of unfrozen water and food that’s easier to obtain.

Lieutenant Bill McAuliffe with the Bonner County Sheriff’s Department points out that maintained roads aren’t just beneficial to drivers in the winter; “animals tend to use the roadways a lot as well.”

The Idaho Department of Transportation reports that in 2007, there were 1,281 reported crashes with wildlife on Idaho highways, resulting in 202 injuries to people. Since 1997, 27 people have died as a result of these collisions.

In October of 2008, State Farm Insurance issued a report that stated an Idaho motorist has a 1-in-273 chance during the next year of colliding with a deer or other species of big game. It also says collisions with wildlife have increased by 31.2 percent in the last five years. Montana comes in slightly more dangerous, with an increase of 32.2 percent.

With animals out and about, what precautions can you take?

Don’t speed. “Drive slower,” McAuliffe offered. It’s a simple rule of physics—the slower you’re traveling, the less damage you’re likely to suffer should you hit a deer, bear or moose. “Speed is such a critical factor in the outcome of a collision,” explains award-winning high school physics teacher Griff Jones in the Arbor Scientific video “Understanding car crashes—it’s basic physics.” Drivers new to the area would do well to pay close attention to other drivers on the road. Local drivers generally are aware of areas where wildlife are more likely to be present, and tend to slow down in those areas whether they see an animal or not.

Focus on driving. “Don’t divide your attention by doing things like talking on a cell phone,” said McAuliffe. “Pay attention to what cars around you are doing.” Wildlife near highways are unpredictable, and often drivers have only a split second to react to an animal entering the roadway.

Wear your seat belt. “Of course, you’re much better off if you have your seat belt on than you are if you have it off,” McAuliffe remarked. “Your odds of injury are greatly reduced.”

Don’t swerve. Although it’s instinctive to swerve away from an animal in front of you, this is rarely a good idea. “Generally, I’d recommend you don’t try to avoid hitting it,” McAuliffe said. “We usually see a lot more damage from people trying to avoid the hit.” And oftentimes fatal damage, as the deer in front of your vehicle is generally less dangerous than the car approaching in the lane you might swerve into if you react without thinking. Deer can accelerate from 0 to 30 mph in 1.5 seconds; if you continue in a straight line and brake, the deer may be gone before you reach the point of impact.

Know your animals. Fast moving cars, headlights and blowing horns can all cause animals to react in unpredictable ways. Don’t assume that an animal heading away from the road won’t suddenly turn and attempt to cross in front of you. Keep in mind that deer tend to be more active, and harder to see, at dawn and dusk. Moose and bear are most often hit at night. A moose in front of you on the road will tend to stay on the road for a way before veering off. In addition, deer and elk tend to travel in herds. If you see one, be on the lookout for others.


Don’t count on deer whistles. Although some manufacturers claim up to a 70 percent reduction in collisions when using their device, no study has actually been able to show these tools to be effective. Deer are sensitive to low sounds (in the 2 to 6 kilohertz range), but only some of the deer whistles on the market even emit sounds in this range. In addition, these devices must compete with other sounds, such as those from traffic, wind, etc.

Don’t count on ‘deer guards,’ heavy, steel bumper guards placed on some vehicles. “I’ve seen some cases where these have caused even more damage,” Bob Anderson explained.


Pull immediately to the side of the road. Even if it was a glancing blow, adrenaline will have flooded your system. Take the time to catch your breath and slow your heart rate before attempting to drive again. You also need to check to see if the animal, or vehicle parts, are creating a hazard on the roadway.

Report it. “That’s one of the misconceptions,” McAuliffe explained, “that if you don’t have insurance, and no one was hurt, you don’t have to report it. Idaho Code requires that you report a collision when there’s property damage to someone else, or damage to your own vehicle of $1,500 or more.”

Report it. Even if you believe damage was minimal, if the animal is injured or remains in the roadway, report it. Many experienced hunters will often put an animal out of its misery themselves, but Idaho Code does consider that to be illegal. Be thankful for that. Sandy Compton tells a truly horrifying tale from many years in the past (way beyond the statute of limitations) of hitting a deer with his brand new truck late at night near Hope. The dear was fatally injured but not yet dead; the only weapon in his new truck was an axe. This is not a situation you want to find yourself in.

Have your vehicle inspected, as some damage may not be readily apparent. Bob Anderson notes that the back side of many headlights are plastic, which can crack and cause your headline not to aim properly, or to light unsteadily. Damage to your radiator may also show up over time, as well as damage to your steering and transmission. You may also discover you have alignment problems.

North Idaho and western Montana roadways are heavily populated with a variety of wildlife, and while a collision is not inevitable (Anderson says he’s never hit wildlife in the area), it’s still very likely. Being aware that animals can dash in front of your vehicle at any time is your best way to prepare, so you can act appropriately when the time comes.

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Landon Otis

Tagged as:

moose, wildlife, driving, Adam Denham, accidents, Lt. Bill McAuliffe

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