Collisions between moose and motorists damage vehicles, injure and sometimes kill people and result in hundreds of dead moose each year on the Kenai Peninsula.
Illustration by M. Scott Moon
Editor’s note: This is the second of five stories examining the high number of moose road kills on the Kenai Peninsula. Tuesday’s story studies how other parts of the country deal with moose on roads.
People who drive on the Kenai Peninsula for any length of time eventually will have a story to tell about running into or nearly running into a moose.
While moose-vehicle collisions typically are not fatal to the humans involved, they usually result in a dead moose on the side of the road and a sizable body shop bill for the car owner.
At Denny’s Auto Body Shop on the Sterling Highway in Sterling, Denny Hiler says the average repair bill is between $2,500 and $5,000 following a moose hit.
“It can be upwards of 16 or 17 thousand (dollars),” he said.
Hiler said typical damage includes the hood of the vehicle peeling up into the windshield, as well as the roof being bent down.
He said sometimes radiators are damaged, but that type of damage is more typical of pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles.
Most of the vehicles he sees following a collision with a moose come from the Sterling Highway between the Kenai Mountains and Sterling. He repairs between 25 and 30 moose wreck vehicles a year.
Ed Krohn, owner of Kenai Auto on the Kenai Spur Highway at the east end of Kenai, said he estimates getting between 10 and 15 vehicles to repair each year.
Krohn believes more cars get hit each year, but older vehicles do not get repaired, he said.
“Many cars are totaled because they are too expensive to rebuild,” he said.
Krohn said pickups and taller SUVs typically hit moose broadside, so the damage to the vehicle is front-end damage. Smaller cars hit the moose’s legs, hurtling the animal up onto the roof.
He said damage usually includes a front fender, the roof pillar, the sides and the roof on smaller cars.
“The danger to small cars is extreme,” Krohn said.
Damage does not always come from the vehicle striking the moose; sometimes it’s the other way around.
Krohn has worked on some vehicles that were run into from the side by the big, brown ungulates.
“I had some where the moose damaged parked cars banging its antlers on the mirrors and the side of the car,” Krohn said.
“Don’t ever get rid of your comprehensive (insurance coverage),” he said.
When asked about the need to repair or replace airbags and seat belt pretensioners following a collision, both Hiler and Krohn said surprisingly they have never seen an airbag deployed as the result of a moose-vehicle collision.
“It takes a harder impact,” said Krohn.
He said the vehicle needs to strike something more solid to activate the sensor that deploys the airbag.
Hiler concurred, and said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an airbag deploy in a moose hit. The car doesn’t stop fast enough.”
When asked if cattle guards some people have mounted on the fronts of their vehicles lessened the damage in moose collisions, Hiler said, “For the most part, they’re just light bars.
“Moose can flatten it like a pancake,” he said.
According to the Alaska Moose Federation, the average cost per accident in Alaska this year has been $1,848.17.
Since Jan. 1, 148 moose have been hit on Alaska roadways, adding up to a total of $612,159 in damage to vehicles alone, the federation reports.
If the costs of responding to the accident, treating the injury to the humans and lost time from work are factored in, the average cost of the collision jumps to $15,000, said Gary Olson, federation chairman.
That figure does not include the value of the moose, Olson said.
“In rural Alaska, the meat value of one moose is $5,000,” he said.
The moose federation, which seeks to relocate Alaska’s moose away from populated areas, believes moose also account for an intangible value to hunters and tourists in addition to their value as it relates to pubic safety.
Olson predicts that what people are witnessing today will only get worse.
“We’re straightening roads (in Alaska) and cars are getting smaller. The moose aren’t,” he said.
Body shops normally do not see vehicles that have been totaled in more serious collisions, which may account for Krohn saying most injuries suffered by drivers are cuts on the face and hands from flying glass.
At Central Peninsula General Hospital, the emergency department treats about 20 patients a year who were injured in moose-vehicle collisions, according to ED nurse Lois Johnson.
She said injuries can range all the way from minor to fatal.
CPGH Chief Executive Officer David Gilbreath said if a driver dies at the scene of an accident, usually the person is not brought to the hospital.
A chart in a wildlife mitigation project compiled by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services biologist Richard D. Ernst shows one human fatality on the Sterling Highway between the mountains and Sterling, which occurred in 200l.
In December 2003, a Sterling teen was killed after the snowmachine he was riding struck a moose on Otter Trail in Sterling.
Johnson said she also recalls a young person in a car who was killed “a few years ago.”
Body shop owner Krohn said he believes speed is the greatest factor in moose-vehicle collisions.
“Before they salted the roads in Alaska, people had to drive slower. We didn’t see as many wrecks,” Krohn said.
“Most of the time, people don’t ever see (the moose),” he said.
Insurance rates typically are not higher in Alaska because of the frequency of moose-vehicle collisions.
Kelly Conaway, a State Farm Insurance representative from the Kristie Leaf Agency in Kenai, said drivers are not penalized due to a moose wreck.
“It’s paid out of comprehensive,” she said. “Comprehensive claims are not a surchargeable claim,” Conaway said, meaning drivers are not charged as if they had a car crash.
“If there’s a frequency of comprehensive claims, we may ask the person to raise their deductible,” she said.
Hiler said in terms of safety on Alaska roads, from what he has seen, motorists in pickup trucks and SUVs are better off than drivers of small cars.
“I’m a firm believer in, ‘The bigger the better,’” he said.
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