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The Covid-19 pandemic with stay-home orders has affected traffic all over the United States. The reduced traffic allows animals who usually avoid auto noises to travel to unexpected places.

In this report, experts explain how drivers, wildlife and technology interact on the road. In the future, technology could prevent damages to vehicles, injuries to humans and roadkill.

What Should Drivers Know About Animals on the Road?

“In these times, expect the unexpected,” warns Russ Rader, Senior Vice President, Communications, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), “In most of the crashes with animals where people are hurt, it’s because drivers weren’t wearing their seatbelts, or in the case of motorcycle riders, they weren’t wearing a helmet.

“In areas where animals are common, it’s important to watch your speed,” says Rader. An animal can appear in the road suddenly. Even if a collision can’t be avoided, a lower speed can lessen the damage to the vehicle. He advises that drivers should be prepared; remember that with animals like deer, if you see one ahead, there are likely others ready to follow across the road.” 

In fact, recently Rader was in a car in Washington D.C. that was stopped because there was a herd of deer on the highway off-ramp.

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Darkness Creates Even More of a Hazard

“Use your high beams as much as you can because they can enable you to see an animal sooner. If you’re buying a new car and you do a lot of driving at night, look for a vehicle equipped with headlights that earn top ratings in IIHS headlight tests,” advises Rader 

“Advanced headlight systems have high-beam assist which can automatically switch to high beams depending on the presence of other vehicles. Adaptive headlight systems automatically move right and left with a driver’s steering wheel input to help illuminate curves,” he adds.

Some automakers report that pedestrian detection systems also detect animals but IIHS hasn’t tested that feature.

“When IIHS tested pedestrian detection systems we found that some models were rated superior to other models. Pedestrian detection is now included in IIHS Top Safety Pick ratings,” reports Rader.

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Odds Are You May Run into Animals on the Road – What Should You Do?

Recent data from State Farm for last year found there were over 1.9 million animal collision claims. U.S. Drivers have a 1 in 116 chance of hitting an animal while driving. State Farm along with seat belt wearing and slowing down advises drivers to scan the road ahead to avoid swerving. They advise when drivers see an animal near their lane, they should brake firmly and remain in the lane.

Many serious crashes occur when drivers swerve to avoid a deer and hit another vehicle or lose control of their cars. Animals that can be involved in crashes include deer, elk, moose, domestic animals, escaped farm animals, birds, bears, wild pigs, reptiles, rats, racoons, squirrels, rats, rabbits and frogs.

“We estimate that, in about 50% of collisions with animals, the cars cannot be driven away,” says Fraser Schilling, Ph.D., director of the UC Davis Road Ecology Center, University of California Davis (UC Davis).

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Why Wild Animals Like Covid-19 Stay-at-Home and Quarantines

Schilling says that people would be surprised that there was a mountain lion in a major Sacramento, California region where no one would expect a mountain lion and a black bear on the campus of UC Davis.

Californians have been seeing more wildlife in the neighbourhoods which could be due to reduced traffic or that since people are working at home they are noticing the animals more.

The UC Davis Road Ecology Center published a report that found due to Covid-19 quarantine and stay-at-home orders there have been fewer animals killed on the road through wildlife-vehicle conflicts from early March to mid-April for three states (California, Idaho and Maine.)

In California, 58 per cent fewer mountain lions were killed between the 10 weeks before stay-at-home orders compared to the 10 weeks after. It is especially important because the Santa Ana and Santa Monica mountains are isolated from other populations by freeways which puts them at risk of distinction. The data is good news for a litter of mountain lion kittens (P-82, P-83 and P-84) born to P-54 in the Santa Monica Mountains in May. P-54’s mother P-23 was killed by a car collision. 

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How Does Road Design Affect Roadkill?

“Developments and road designs are not conducive to wildlife movement,” says Tiffany Yap Ph.D., biologist, Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).

Mountain lion(also called LA cougars) diversity in the is so important that CBD is supporting the National Wildlife Foundation and other entities in the building of an overpass bridge from Liberty Canyon to the Agoura Hills over the ten-lane wide 101 freeway enable mountain lions and other wildlife to cross safely to breed and forage.

Yap reports many mountain lions have been killed by cars.

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Be open-minded, trust good science, it has proven to reduce crashes.

“It can often be more effective to influence the animals than the drivers on the roads,” says Bridget Donaldson, Associate Principal Research Scientist, Virginia Transportation, who is researching the interaction of wildlife and roadways as well as mitigation.

Virginia is one of the worst states for deer collisions with over 60,000 collisions a year. The installation of 1 mile of 8-ft high fencing to guide deer and other wildlife to the existing underpasses, bridges and culverts reduces the high frequency of wildlife crashes. The benefits from crash reduction exceeded the fencing costs in 1.8 years that resulted in an average savings of more than $2.3 million per site.

Adding fencing to existing underpasses is an effective tool used in wildlife crash mitigation. In Virginia, animals on the road can include deer, black bears, racoons, opossums, bobcats and coyotes, says Donaldson. Another tool is changeable message signs that have shown a 50% reduction in collisions in the areas they were evaluated.

The third tool, which has been researched but not yet implemented, is animal detection systems.

“Animal detection systems show great potential and effectively detect wildlife. How effective they are at preventing crashes on Virginia roads will require additional years of research, but similar systems have proven effective in other states” says Donaldson.

Donaldson says wildlife on roads is an ongoing problem due to additional miles travelled and human development encroaching on wildlife habitats. Often people complain about the costs of research and implementation. She advises, “Be open-minded, trust good science, it has proven to reduce crashes.”

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Getting to the Other Side…

All types of animals need to cross freeways to forage and to mate, says Yap. Other options besides bridges, under and overpasses to protect animals include lighting warning signs and speed bumps or even road closures.

Tilden Regional Park, Berkeley, California a road is closed to allow the migration of newts, a kind salamander, to cross the road to ponds and streams to mate.

Schilling expects that there will be a lag time before the animals adjust to the traffic and learn when not to cross the roads when drivers get back to work. Drivers can’t count on technology to prevent all collisions with animals, yet.

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Can ADAS, AEB and Pedestrian Detection Work for Animals in the Road?

“Don’t assume that a vehicle with automatic emergency braking or pedestrian detection will automatically stop when there is an animal in the road unless the animal is approximately the size of the smallest human being that could be in the road advises,” Schilling.

There are currently two major types of animal detection for vehicles, thermal detection with a warning for the driver and large animal detection with automatic emergency braking.

Volvo offers City Safety with large animal detection that detects large animals such as elk, horses or moose as they cross the road at night or day. When it detects an animal, the system warns the driver. If the driver does not respond, then the brakes are applied.

However, Volvo documentation warns that the system won’t function with partially obscured larger animals, larger animals seen from the front or from behind, running or fast-moving larger animals, in areas with a poor background or with smaller animals such as cats and dogs.

Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz offer animal detection that uses thermal cameras also known as night vision to recognise the animals and then show the image and/or sound a warning. For example, in the Audi system, the heat vision black and white image is shown on the instrument cluster or on Audi virtual cockpit with detected animals highlighted in yellow markings.

Schilling warns that animals are unpredictable with fright/flight defence reactions and may leap towards a vehicle when spooked.

The technology being used for autonomous driving and ADAS can also be used to detect animals and warn drivers that animals are approaching. Safety and autonomous sensors often installed in vehicles are installed in wildlife areas near roadways.

Schilling is working on a project with Hao Xu Ph.D. (University of Nevada, Reno), using LiDAR, video camera, radar and thermal sensor data for smart crossings for wild horses on the USA Parkway in Nevada for the Nevada Department of Transportation.

When the system detects that horses are getting close to the road it then alerts drivers through light signals on the side of the road.

Until there more preventative measures and technology in roads and cars Schilling advises, “If you are in an area that looks like a forest and wild animals will live – they are most likely nearby and could be on the road.”

To read our article on dog-friendly technology, click on the link below.

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