Study finds twilight riskiest for moose-car collisions

Posted: Sunday, October 14, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Twilight is the riskiest time for moose-car collisions, according to two Finnish scientists.

That proved to be the case for Barbara Evan of Anchorage as she headed inbound on the Glenn Highway.

''I thought, 'God forbid, if I hit a moose,' and, BAM, there it was,'' she said of that September evening when 1,000 pounds of meat and fur galloped from the median ditch into the path of her sport utility vehicle.

The impact shattered the windshield, spraying glass bits into Evan's eyes. As the moose tumbled airborne, it smashed the SUV's roof, then landed in the roadway. The carcass was struck almost immediately by two more cars.

Something similar has happened on Anchorage roads at least 205 times over the past 15 months -- and at least 1,200 times since 1992.

Just since Oct. 1, at least eight moose have been struck and killed by vehicles in the Anchorage area, according to Alaska State Troopers.

A study published this month in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that in the hour after sunset, motorists are at least 15 times more likely to hit an animal than at other times of day.

The study was done by two Finnish scientists who analyzed collisions with moose and deer all over Finland.

''There are two participants in animal crashes, and exposure to risk is dependent on human and animal activities,'' Heikki Summala, professor of traffic psychology at the University of Helsinki, said in an e-mail message to the Anchorage Daily News. ''However, our analysis controlled traffic volume and showed that the crash risk is very high just after sunset, probably due to moose activity and impaired perception of them by drivers.''

The number of accidents gradually decreases as the animals bed down and the traffic volume falls. A smaller peak in collisions occurred after dawn.

The Finnish data matched previous studies of animal-vehicle collisions in Michigan and Maine, Summala said. Alaska researchers and state traffic statistics have uncovered a similar pattern over the past decade.

That dawn-dusk pattern also showed up in a separate study, written by traffic engineer Scott Thomas, of 1,500 moose-vehicle accidents that occurred between 1988 and 1992 on Alaska's rural highways.

The number of accidents dramatically surged between 5 p.m. and midnight, with a peak in the hour after 6 p.m. A much smaller peak hit between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m.

Like the current study in Finland, Thomas' attributed the problem to driving with poor visibility during the period when moose become most active.

In Anchorage, the number of moose killed by vehicles has averaged 155 a year since 1994. ''It's the commuters that are hitting them,'' said area management biologist Rick Sinnott. ''And it's in the early morning, and it's during late in the day.''

Over the years, Alaska officials have tried a range of strategies -- extra lighting, fencing, clearing brush and the ''Give moose a break'' campaign urging drivers to slow down. But the number of serious moose-vehicle accidents has continued to average about 620 a year since the early 1990s.

''One solution may be to slow down another 10 to 15 mph or provide some sort of lighting,'' Sinnott said. ''Bright lights do help.''

In 1987, the state decided to tackle the Glenn Highway's ''moose alley'' through the 10-mile stretch of dark, forested land between Eagle River and the city of Anchorage. Between 1980 and 1987, an average of 44 moose were killed on the stretch of highway, said Murph O'Brien, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.

The state spent an extra $2.5 million to install nine miles of lighting, erect three miles of 9-foot-tall fencing with special gates, and construct a 10-foot-tall underpass for moose migration along Ship Creek.

Since then, the number of moose-vehicle collisions there has dropped at least 70 percent.

Hoping for similar success, the state is spending $1.3 million to install lights along the Glenn Highway through the Palmer Hay Flats, known for attracting large numbers of moose in winter. For the first three years, Matanuska Electric Association and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough have agreed to cover power and maintenance costs, O'Brien said.

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