Roadkill: The Tragedy That No One Talks About

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Oct 25, 2012

Roadkill. There, I’ve said it, the scourge that most people would rather forget about. Splat!—you've just hit a raccoon, rabbit, snake, skunk (pew!) or woodchuck. Actually, rarely a woodchuck—they stand by the road a lot but mysteriously seldom end up as roadkill.

"What a tragedy this is!" says Ray Magliozzi. Car Talk is definitely for reducing the slaughter of the innocents. "If I'm not mistaken," Ray says, "something like 60,000 deer are killed just in Pennsylvania each year. And that's just one state and one species. Shouldn't the insurance industry be all over this?" It indeed should be. But there's no easy one-stop solution, aside from closing down all our highways.

The last thing you want to see flash in front of your wheels: Bambi. (Flickr image by Beyond the Trail)
The last thing you want to see flash in front of your wheels: Bambi. (Flickr image by Beyond the Trail)

Mark Matthew Braunstein is America’s unofficial guru of roadkill. He once sent me a collection of pictures of squashed animals I still can’t get out of my mind. His unverified estimate is that a million animals a day go under an American vehicle’s wheels. Motorists—driving cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles—kill 400 million road animals every year, he says, which is double the take from hunters and four times the toll in lab animals. “Only America’s meat eaters take a larger toll than its motorists,” says Braunstein, who adds that the actual take in uncounted animals (and not including bugs!) might be three or four times higher.

Let’s put those numbers in perspective—State Farm insurance says only 1.5 million kills annually, with $1 billion in damages. My guess is that these are reported larger animal crashes. How many people report hitting raccoons or possums?

Car Talk has covered this subject before, and uncovered some interesting stats on other countries’ more modest annual tolls: 47,000 in Sweden, 40,000 in Canada, 10,000 in Australia. Those numbers seem low to me, probably resulting from under-reporting—Aussies hit a lot of kangaroos and wallabies. But maybe it’s true—Australia reported that animal crashes resulted in only 94 human fatalities between 1990 and 1997, which is far less than the estimated 200 every year (and 29,000 injuries) in the U.S. We love the car, right?

The chicken crosses the road to get to the other side, and that’s what’s going on with all those animal vagabonds. According to a Canadian study I read, animals that would probably live long, full lives if they just stayed put are probably moving along long-established breeding routes, or attracted to food sources (grassy edges for deer; other roadkill for scavengers). Some poor animals, such as snakes, are actually attracted to the road itself, because it’s warm. Juveniles might be striking out for new territories, and breeders headed for seasonal (vernal) pools.

The eastern spotted salamander frequently turns into roadkill when it's trying to reach a vernal pool.
The eastern spotted salamander frequently turns into roadkill when it's trying to reach a vernal pool.

Braunstein says we need a “paving moratorium,” but this is America we’re talking about. Might as well try to bring back Prohibition. Another cool idea that has a higher chance of getting somewhere is the wildlife tunnel. In Amherst, Massachusetts, for instance, residents used to figure out the likely migration period for salamanders crossing Henry Street, and turn out with buckets to help them across the road. Then, in 1987, two tunnels were built under the road, and a study revealed that three quarters of the salamanders that reached the tunnels used them effectively. I can't believe the orderly processions of elk I'm seeing making migratory passage across a railroad bridge in Banff, Alberta.  Now we just need a million more expensive salamander tunnels and deer crossing corridors. Oddly enough, the elk here aren't using a corridor built for them by humans, but just crossing a bridge.

These Banff elk made their own corridor.
These Banff elk made their own corridor.

Ray asks, "I know lots of highways have fences but there are many more miles of secondary roads with no clear remedy in sight. Maybe cars could have devices that alert creatures of impending doom. It seems like its within our reach, but who knows." Indeed, Volvo is working on a sophisticated electronic system using sensors and lasers to detect and avoid large animal collisions. If a crash with something large and alive is unavoidable, it can slam on the brakes, pre-tighten seatbelts and set off a warning signal. Volvo tells me this week that the system, or one like it, is headed for the market in two to three years.

Avoidance is a good thing. I had a friend who swore by one of the “ultrasonic” deer whistles that have been around since the 1970s. It’s a little bullet-shaped and hollow piece of plastic that mounted on your front bumper and supposedly warned away deer who you’d otherwise turn into roadkill. The premise is this: air passes through the whistle, which causes it to emit a scary 16- to 20-kilohertz signal that deer can hear but you can’t.

The available studies don’t prove much of anything—some people with the whistle didn’t hit any deer, but in other tests more deer reacted to cars without whistles. Read all about it here.

Much more sophisticated is the DeerDeter intelligent crossing system newly developed by an Austrian company. It’s a miniature solar-powered processor mounted in the road itself. The system is silent most of the time, but when a car approaches it sets off an audible warning and activates a strobe light to keep animals where they are. Future units will be upgraded so they can communicate their working status to a central network.  

Some 10,000 have been tested in the U.S. and Europe, and manufacturers claim they reduce collisions 70 to 90 percent. The main obstacle here is to get municipal governments concerned enough to invest in systems like this.   

Bullwinkle going for a stroll. (Flickr image by scottdc_)
Bullwinkle going for a stroll. (Flickr image by scottdc_)

A European study of car-moose crashes in Sweden found that they don’t necessarily occur more often in migratory periods, but do happen more often in populated areas where traffic speeds are highest. The obvious conclusion is that people driving these roads need to slow down and be more careful.

I’m crossing my fingers here. I haven’t hit anything in a long time, though it was a close thing with that squirrel the other day. If squirrels could get over their tendency to change their minds in the middle of the road, both animals and humans would be better off.

Editor's note: November is the deadliest month for deer, when it comes to auto collisions. Here's the scoop, from our friends at

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