Highway driving: How to avoid hitting an animal

Animal impacts: a major rural driving hazard

You are driving in the country. You drive over a crest or around a bend, and suddenly there is an animal right in front of you. Hitting anything from a wombat to a sheep, the ubiquitous kangaroo, the emu, cattle and even large birds will present you with – at least – a serious repair bill.

Impacts with large animals are seldom survivable - for the vehicle and the animalShould you swerve at high speed and risk losing control or head-on collision, or brake hard and risk hitting the animal and damaging the car? It’s worthwhile planning your response before being confronted with these unpalatable options face-to-face.

Low Light

For starters, it’s best to avoid driving at dawn or dusk, when animals are at their most active. Dawn/dusk is also when human eyesight is fairly compromised and headlights are least effective. Night time travel is also quite dangerous if you are inexperienced. Have a coffee instead at dawn, and get off the road before dusk if possible.

Animals are often attracted to roadside environs in the boonies because of the table drains (which catch the water that runs off the road) which often offer green grass (for feed) even when the paddocks are a dustbowl. Likewise, roadkill at the roadside attracts scavengers – in the outback in particular, impacts with wedge-tailed eagles (think: two-metre wingspans) feeding on roadkill are increasingly prevalent.

In general on the road, and especially in relation to animal impacts, it is far better to reduce risk by avoiding exposure to it than it is to try to deal with an impending crash as an emergency.

Think through what you will do if confronted by this situation (and here’s the important bit) before you are confronted by it.

Risk Management

Slow down – even if only a little – when you cannot see far enough ahead to stop. Crests and blind curves warrant a little less speed, which equals vastly reduced stopping distances in an emergency. Travel speed has very little to do with whether you can handle the car if everything goes well, and everything to do with whether you can stop in an emergency.

Assess the risks. A high-speed swerve can mean leaving the bitumen, which could result in loss of control – and a consequential rollover, impact with an immovable roadside obstacle – or a head-on collision. Many of these crash types are unsurvivable.

Hitting an animal is more likely only to damage the car – and of course the animal – but it could injure you or your passengers if you are going fast enough or the animal is big enough. This is especially true if the animal is, for example, as large as a cow.

Drive with both hands on the wheel – it maximises control in emergency situations. Swerve-avoid-recover manoeuvres are very dicey, one-handed.

Look as far down the road as possible. The sooner you see ‘Skippy’ or Bessie the cow the more time you will have to react. Time equals distance equals safety.

Brake or Swerve?

If an emergency stop is required, brake as hard as possible, as early as possible. Really stomp on the pedal – you can’t break it or damage the brake system. (Most people don’t brake hard enough, early enough, in emergencies.) In this way, even if you hit the animal, your impact speed will be as low as possible in the circumstances, minimising both damage and risk.

Remember, it’s often the kangaroo you don’t see that gets you. Kangaroos (and other animals) tend to travel in small social groups. One hops across the road, you see it, compute that you’ll miss it, and think there’s no further need to stop. Then you hit its partner, which is following roo #1, which you haven’t seen. This is a common occurrence. If you see one animal, go with the smart money and bet that others are close by.

If you decide to swerve, brake first if possible. The slower the swerve, the less the chances of losing control. Keep your eyes on the road, not the animal. If the car leaves the bitumen, keep looking down the road, and point the wheels in that direction. Don’t over-correct. In emergencies, always look where you want the car to go.

If you lose control, hit the brakes hard. This is all you can do to minimise speed as quickly as possible. Survival in a crash is closely linked with speed – anything that reduces the speed is absolutely crucial to survival.

Balance of probabilities: no two situations are alike, but generally it is safer to brake and hit than to swerve and crash – especially if the animal is relatively small. (Person-sized or less.)