The victims of convenience
EASTERN KANSAS – The carcasses of the dead littered the shoulders of Interstate 70 heading west through the tree-covered Flint Hills on the road toward the prairie. There were still intact whitetail deer bloating in the sun, and the crushed remains of raccoons, foxes, possums, rabbits, the large but not easily identified birds and more.
These are now common sites in the Lower 48 states. Exactly how much the death toll has risen due to the increasing inattentiveness of U.S. drivers is hard to say, but more on that later. First a look at some of the numbers.
A peer-reviewed study of a major, pandemic-fueled decline in road kill reported in the journal Biological Conservation during concluded that before the lockdown “reported collisions represent(ed) 27,200, 22,650, and 29,040 and 29,200 deer and other large mammals killed on roads and highways per year in California, Idaho, Maine, and Washington (state) respectively.”
Kansas is reported to witness less than half those numbers, but it’s amazing the number of dead deer one sees along the roadside despite the efforts of Kansas Department of Transportation road kill cleanup crews and the cooperative Kansas weather.
“I don’t think people realize how fast an animal will decompose and disappear,” Joe Palic, a member of one of those cleanup crews, told the Marion Country Record in the summer of 2021. “It’s usually a matter of a day or two or three even for a deer.”
The policy in Kansas is to get the carrion off the road and out of sight, and then let nature take its course. For the smaller animals, Palic told the newspaper, we “get a
square-point shovel, give ‘em a scoop, and throw them into the tall grass.”
The bigger ones they try to drag far enough from the highway that scavenging foxes, coyotes or birds don’t also become roadkill.
“There’s close to 10,000 deer accidents a year in Kansas (on average),” according to Palic. “I see around 9,000 to 11,000 a year. You don’t see a big truck pulled over from hitting a deer. They just keep heading down the road. They come barreling down the roads every day.”
There are lots of big trucks rolling down American interstates these days, and a lot of them are equipped with grill guards designed to smash through almost anything. MadMax Truck Parts advertises its “Herd Defender Bumper Grill Guard” as capable of protecting “your truck from deer, brush, moose and more to keep your truck going for the long haul!”
This is life, and death, in the wildlife-rich middle latitudes of North America.
Cold, dark and empty
Alaskans, or at least some of them and nearly all Alaska tourists, like to think of the 49th state as home to the “abundant wildlife” the mainstream media regularly proclaims to be a key feature of the northland, but the ecological reality is something else.
Alaska is a cold, dark, relatively unproductive place. Drivers kill almost as many deer in Kansas on average as hunters do in Alaska, where the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports a 2022 harvest of just over 12,600.
The hunter harvest in Kansas averages more than 80,000 per year, and Kansas is a tiny state compared to Alaska. Granted, its 80,000 square miles is about 80 percent greater than that of Kodiak Island, Prince William Sound and the Alaska Panhandle, where nearly all of the Alaska deer kill takes place.
But those coastal areas happen to be the most ecologically rich parts of the 49th state, and even if the deer harvest there was doubled for comparison’s sake, it would be only about twice the Kanasas road kill and a mere fraction of the Kansas hunt harvest.
Kansas isn’t a big deer-hunting state, either. The biggest deer hunting state is Texas where hunters kill an average of 737,000 deer per year, a kill some 20 to 25 times greater than the Alaska harvest for all of the family Cervidae – deer, caribou, moose and elk.
Moose are the most common animals run down in Alaska, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports more than 800 per year are hit. How many of those moose die is unknown as are the number of unreported collisions. Data tracking is not good in the 49th state.
But a University of Washington researcher leading a group of scientists studying moose road kill in Alaska and British Columbia, Canada last year reported the Alaska Department of Transportation had records for “5,084 moose-vehicle collisions” from 2009 to 2017, or about 565 collisions per year.
Those records, however, include only moose struck on state roadways where speeds are generally higher than in urban areas, and where most of the moose are likely killed. The number struck and killed on borough- and city-maintained roads is harder to ascertain, but is likely to be small in the bigger roadkill picture.
The Alaska-B.C. study published in IOPscience’s Environmental Research Letters claimed that “in the United States alone, 2 million collisions with ungulates kill approximately 440 people, injure approximately 59 000 people, and cause more than $10 billion of economic losses annually.”
Alaska, with its comparatively unproductive wildlife habitat and correspondingly lower wildlife densities, is obviously a safer space for wildlife than the Lower 48, but the risks to animals in the 49th state are likely going up here as they are elsewhere for the same reason motor vehicle collisions and human deaths are going up.
When a company called Cambridge Mobile Telematics started tracking what people do in their cars and trucks in the U.S., what it found was what a lot of people weren’t doing: paying attention to the road.
‘From 2020 to 2022, distracted driving increased by over 20 percent in the United States,” the company reported “The two foundational metrics for distracted driving, phone motion and screen interaction, rose by 21 percent and 23 percent, respectively, over the past three years.
“The increase in crashes when drivers handle their phones and interact with their screens is stark: The worst offenders are over 240 percent more likely to crash than the safest drivers.”
The company did not track the risks to wildlife inherent in these numbers, but it did note the risks to people.
“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 42,915 people were killed on American roads in 2021, the highest in 16 years,” the company wrote in its report on “The State of Distracted Driving in 2023 & the Future of Road Safety. “In 2020, American roadways were the most dangerous since 2007, reaching 1.3 fatalities per 100 million miles.
“Smartphone adoption has continued to surge in the face of the distracted driving crisis. When the iPhone was introduced in 2007, over 4,600 pedestrians were killed on American roadways. By 2021, 85 percent of Americans owned a smartphone, 7,485 pedestrians
were killed – the most in 40 years – and there were 985 cycling deaths, the highest since 1990.
“NHTSA estimates that distracted driving killed 3,522 people in 2021, but caveats that the’ ‘estimates are almost certainly conservative because they are based only on identified distraction cases.'”
The carcasses lining the roadways of America ought to be a red flag warning that there is a big problem here, but officialdom seems to be paying little attention. Driving two-lane roads that wound their through forest tunnels in the Ann Arbor, Michigan area at 45 or 50 mph with tailgating, in a-hurry drivers behind even at night when deer are most active and visibility at its worst was a little unsettling.
“In 2022, more than 58,000 vehicle-deer crashes occurred across Michigan in rural, suburban, and city settings,” according to that state. “About 80 percent of those crashes were on two-lane roads. Because deer are most active at dawn and dusk, it is not surprising that most traffic crashes involving deer happen from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.”
There was a time when some Midwest states recognized this reality and posted night-time versus day-time speed limits, but those days appear to be largely over. Montana, Colorado and Florida appear to be among the few states that have hung on to the idea of slowing traffic down to save lives, be they human or wild.
The state of Michigan merely advises drivers to “be aware of your surroundings and be prepared for deer to dash out in front of you….Slow down. Be prepared to stop if deer are near the road. If a deer stops and stays on the road, do not try to go around it….(and) Use high-beam headlights and additional driving lights to see the road better.”
The only advice that anyone seemed to be following was the latter, which wasn’t helpful given that when drivers refuse to dim those high beams they blind the drivers in the oncoming line of traffic.
When it comes to preventing roadkill, Michigan is sort of the antithesis of Western Canada. The Western Canadians, in general, maintain wide, clear right-of-ways along their major roads making it easier to spot the bison, deer, caribou, Stone sheep and other animals approaching the road.
Still, general driver awareness there doesn’t appear all that great either, and coming out of Fort St. John, British Columbia, in the early morning dimness, I watched a driver in front of me hit a deer I saw coming out of a field to the right. He obviously didn’t see it. It bent the front of his truck, but he was fine.
On a more than 5,000-mile road trip, I also saw more than a few close calls involving drivers speeding by roadside animals they didn’t appear to see. Unaware drivers could commonly be observed all across the Yukon Territory, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Colorado, Utah and on west.
It was frighteningly common to pass other vehicles, glance over and see a driver with his or her face in a phone.
This inattention clearly plays a part in the Michigan road kill of deer topping 50,000 for the fifth year in a row, and for the same reason, the continents roads are becoming ever more unsafe for vulnerable road users – those people who aren’t getting around in an armored steel cage – not to mention for motorists themselves.
As Cambridge Mobile put it, “distraction is the most urgent road
safety crisis facing Americans today” with “screen interaction” – texting, looking up addresses, watching movies, who knows what – being a particular problem.
“CMT data shows that 58 percent of trips in 2022 had some form of screen interaction and that 34 percent of phone motion distraction occurred above 50 mph,” the company reported. “By 2022, phone screen interactions and phone motion reached 2 minutes and 12 seconds and 1:44 of every driving hour, respectively.”
The company had no way of determining for how much of that time an individual’s eyes were forced on the screen instead of the road, but it did find that “34 percent of crashes happen within one minute after a driver interacts with their phone.”
That’s just about the time a driver needs to finish answering a text, put the phone away, and look up to recognize what or who he or she is about to run into. If it’s some form of wildlife, that’s probably a good thing.
Better to kill a deer, raccoon, fox, or even someone’s loose dog than another human. But it would be even better if drivers paid attention to avoid hitting anything. That they don’t is largely due to laws against texting being little enforced, and when laws are little enforced, people quickly learn to ignore them.
A 2018 study published in Injury Prevention called the problem of distracted driving an “epidemic” in Washington state and put a key part of the blame on law enforcement there.
Participants in the study, its authors wrote, “noted the importance of dedicated traffic patrols and the prioritization of distracted driving enforcement within departments. Several participants noted a culture of under-reporting the influence of distracted driving on collisions. This confirms findings from other studies suggesting that distracted driving is under-reported and may pose a greater public health burden than previously reported.
“There is a need for departments to establish and enforce policies banning distracted driving among officers. Many participants self-reported their own distracted driving habits. Though enforcement officers are trained in safe driving skills, neurocognitive studies suggest that multitasking and cognitive load impairs driving skills for all participants. Traffic-related fatalities remain the leading cause of death for law enforcement officers, surpassing the risk from firearm injuries, and traffic fatalities among law enforcement officers increased 13 percent between 2014 and 2015.
“At the individual level of influence, in addition to increased risk to themselves and other drivers, officers who are distracted drivers must personally reconcile a sense of guilt for enforcing a law with which personally they do not always comply.”
This guilt problem among police and often among prosecutors is a big problem as the 2012 death of National Football League coach Greg Knapp well illustrated. An assistant coach for the New York Jets and the married father of three children, the 58-year-old was riding a bicycle in a bike lane in San Ramon, Calif., at midday on July 22 when he was run down from behind.
Knapp, who was wearing a helmet when hit, died in a hospital five days later. Police identified the driver only as a 22-year-old man whose vehicle “drifted” into the bike lane. Two months after Knapp’s death, the local district attorney announced the driver would face no charges related to the collision.
“San Ramon police, who first confirmed the no-filing decision by the county District Attorney’s Office to the (Pleasanton) Weekly on Thursday, concluded that the primary cause of the collision was inattention by the unnamed driver on Dougherty Road that summer afternoon, but prosecutors determined the actions did not rise to the level of criminal culpability under the law,” the newspaper reported at the time.
The district attorney’s office subsequently released a statement saying prosecutors had “determined that there is insufficient evidence to satisfy the requisite standard of criminal negligence on the part of the suspect driver. The dangers of distracted driving are well known; to truly promote road safety, motorists need to be attentive drivers as well.”
The office did not explain what “motorists need to be attentive” if there are no consequences for those who are inattentive, and on American roads today many appear inattentive.
You can witness wildlife paying the price all across the country because, as the officials of San Ramon declared, there is no negligence involved in running into people, let alone animals, outside the driving lane let alone anything or anyone that ventures into the driving lane.