Animal vs. Truck

By on September 7, 2010
RoadKing Mag

Perhaps the biggest white-knuckle experience Ed Lewis had as an over-the-road driver involved a twisty trip through the Provo Canyon in Utah.

“It was pitch black in the middle of the night, and I was the only truck on the road, a little two-lane shortcut through the canyon,’’ Lewis recalls. “I came around a curve and there they were in the middle of the road — about 20 elk. There was a cliff on one side of the road and a lake on the other.’’

Some kind of internal autopilot took over in Lewis, as he carefully dodged one 500-pound beast after another.

Now an instructor in the professional truck-driving program at Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Neb., Lewis includes wildlife avoidance in his classes. His close call with those elk may be atypical, but the likelihood of a trucker encountering deer is high, especially in the fall, which is mating season.

“We teach the guys to fan their brakes — press and release rapidly — not for stopping, though. We’re looking for noise to spook the deer off the road,’’ Lewis says. “If you have to hit it, hit it straight on; don’t swerve, especially with a high-profile vehicle. Also, when you see deer, dim your headlights so they can see you. It might give them a chance to get out of the way.’’

Truckers may come up against big animals like moose, elk and cattle, while turkeys and other birds also pose an injury threat. In March 2009, a Florida trucker running through Nevada made headlines when a 15-pound golden eagle came through the passenger side of his windshield. Moose and elk are an issue in the far northern edge of Maine and Minnesota and across Canada, where moose can top out at 1,200 to 1,500 pounds and elk top out at about 600 pounds. Deer are smaller, (does are typically about 150 pounds and bucks are about 200 pounds) but their numbers make them the biggest threat to drivers.

“Where there’s one, there’s always another one,’’ says Tom McKnight an instructor at the Midwest Truck Driving School in Escanaba, Mich. “It pays to know the area you’re running. If you’re in an area with a little more wildlife, keep scanning the side of the road.’’

If you can’t avoid hitting an animal, there are a few guidelines to safely get your rig up and running again and report any damage to the police or appropriate insurance contacts.

After a collision, pull off the road, as soon as you can do so safely, to assess the situation. The Wildlife Collision Prevention Program from the British Columbia Conservation Foundation offers a few first steps. Turn on your hazard lights, and illuminate the animal with your headlights if the crash happens at night. If the animal is laying in the roadway and poses a threat to traffic, call the police to have it moved. If the animal is still alive and injured, do not approach it. An injured animal may be dangerous.

“Especially deer,” says Lewis. “Their hooves are as sharp as knives. I call the police and they have someone to take care of (moving the animal from the road).’’

Lewis recommends stopping immediately after a wildlife crash and assessing damage to the rig. Inspect the lights, electrical lines and hoses, and radiator, which are the most likely parts to incur damage. If a bumper is bent the edges could be pushed into a tire, causing a hazard that needs to be repaired immediately. Only if there is sufficient damage to pull the truck out of service would Lewis call his dispatcher at the time of a crash.

As for the need to report a wildlife crash to police, the rules vary from one jurisdiction to another, according to Dick Luedke, a spokesman for State Farm Insurance. He recommends drivers find out the laws and report the crashes where appropriate, though a police report usually isn’t necessary for filing an insurance claim over a wildlife crash.

When he was an over-the-road driver, McKnight preferred to roll in the daylight hours, when he could get a better view of wildlife. But he recognizes that many truck drivers prefer running in the nighttime hours, when traffic counts are lower and time on the road can be more relaxing.

Over and over, McKnight warns against swerving to avoid any wildlife. “I tell students, ‘When you’re behind the wheel, you’re the most precious cargo in that truck, you can’t take the chance of going in the ditch.’’’

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