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Status Report, Vol. 40, No. 1 | January 3, 2005 Subscribe

Human deaths in crashes with animals can be cut even if crashes aren't

Most deaths in collisions with deer and other animals occur in subsequent events when a vehicle runs off the road or a motorcyclist falls off the bike. Many of these deaths wouldn't occur with appropriate protection. In a new study of the characteristics of fatal vehicle-animal crashes, the Institute found that 60 percent of people killed riding in vehicles weren't using safety belts, and 65 percent of motorcyclists killed weren't wearing helmets.

"A majority weren't killed by contact with the animal," says Allan Williams, the Institute's chief scientist. "As in other kinds of crashes, safety belts and motorcycle helmets could have prevented many of the deaths."

Fatal crashes involving animals have increased, federal government data show. During 1998-2002, the annual average was 155 crashes in which vehicle occupants died. This compares with an average of 119 during 1993-97. In 2003 there were 201 fatal crashes, a 27 percent increase compared with 2002.

The Institute examined 147 police reports on vehicle-animal collisions in which there were human fatalities. The deaths occurred in nine states in different regions of the country: Colorado, Georgia, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wisconsin. The reports account for 32 percent of fatal vehicle-animal crashes in the United States during 2000-02.

Passenger vehicles were involved in more than half of the crashes. Motorcycles were the striking vehicles in more than one-third even though registered cars, SUVs, and pickups outnumber motorcycles by about 40 to 1.

Types of vehicles that struck animals, killing vehicle occupants

Number Percent
Passenger vehicles  80 54
Motorcycles 55 37
Medium or heavy trucks 9 6
All-terrain vehicles, mopeds  3 2

Note: If more than one vehicle struck an animal, the first striking vehicle is indicated.

Usually a single vehicle

Eighty percent of the collisions with animals involved one passenger vehicle, motorcycle, truck, all-terrain vehicle, or moped. In 38 percent of the crashes a motorcycle struck an animal, and the rider fell off. Thirty-six percent of the crashes involved a passenger vehicle or truck striking an animal and then running off the road and hitting an object or overturning. In 5 percent of the crashes, the animal went through the striking vehicle's windshield.

Twenty percent of the crashes involved multiple vehicles. In half of these, the struck animal became airborne and went through the windshield of an oncoming vehicle. The other crashes resulted in deaths when the vehicles that struck animals then hit other vehicles or a second vehicle struck the animal and then ran off the road.

"Belts and helmets could have made a difference," Williams says. "The absence in most states of helmet laws covering all riders is a factor. In states with universal helmet laws, 80 percent of cyclists were helmeted, compared with 14 percent in states without such laws."

Animals in the collisions in which vehicle occupants were killed

Number Percent
Deer 113 77
Cattle  13 9
Horses 9 6
Dogs  9  6
Bear 1 1
Cat  1 1
Opossum  1 1

Deer are biggest problems

Deer were struck in 3 out of 4 of the crashes. These crashes were most likely to occur in late fall, coinciding with deer breeding and migration. The impacts occurred most often in rural areas, on roads with 55 mph or higher speed limits, and in darkness or at dusk or dawn.

An estimated 1.5 million deer-vehicle crashes occur each year on U.S. roads, resulting in at least $1.1 billion in vehicle damage. A recent Institute report identified countermeasures that could reduce collisions (see "Few approaches to reducing deer collisions have proved effective," Jan. 3, 2004). One method that's proven not to work is the use of whistles mounted on vehicles.

"The best defense to avoid injury is for the people in vehicles to use their safety belts and for motorcyclists to wear helmets," Williams says.

Types of vehicle-animal crashes in which vehicle occupants were killed

Number Percent
Single-vehicle crashes
Motorcyclist or operator of all-terrain vehicle or moped struck animal, fell off vehicle 56 38
Passenger vehicle or truck struck animal, went off road, struck fixed object and/or overturned  53 36
Animal went through window of passenger vehicle  8 5
Multiple-vehicle crashes
Vehicle struck animal, which then went through windshield of oncoming vehicle 14 10
Vehicle struck animal and then collided with another vehicle 12 8
Vehicle struck animal; then another vehicle struck same animal, went off road, struck fixed object and/or overturned  3 2
Other crash types  1 1

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