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Like a Deer in the Headlights


Animals, both wild and domestic, can play major contributory roles in motor vehicle collisions.  Whether it is a large animal, such as a deer or a moose crossing a highway, or a loose dog crossing a residential street, drivers are often forced to make quick decisions in order to avoid a dangerous impact.  From an insurance/legal perspective, one of the predominant issues in animal impact claims involves gathering evidence to support or refute a claim that an animal caused or contributed to a motor vehicle collision.  An engineering investigation can help determine what role, if any,  an animal played.

In most cases, smaller animals such as dogs, cats, rabbits or birds do not pose a direct threat to the motorist simply because the motor vehicle has a much greater mass than the animal.  However, collisions with larger animals such as moose and deer can result in devastating damages.  When a car strikes a relatively tall animal, it usually contacts the animal in its legs, which causes the body of the animal to rotate, slide along the hood and strike the windshield.  The forces are often great enough to cause significant intrusion of the animal’s body into the occupant compartment.  Simultaneously, the collision forces experienced by the occupants can propel them forward, bringing their upper bodies closer to the windshield.  The combination of these two reactions is often deadly.

In many cases, the evidence of an animal impact is obvious.  If an animal is struck and killed by a vehicle, police or emergency crews attending the scene may find and document the existence of an animal carcass near where the collision took place.  Even if the presence of an animal carcass was not documented, there may still be evidence in the form of hairs or other body tissues located either on the vehicle itself or on the roadway surface, deposited as the animal tumbled from the point of impact into the ditch.  In other cases, roadway surface markings may indicate that the vehicle left the roadway in a manner that was inconsistent with steering input from the driver but consistent with a collision with an animal.
       
Due to the nature of the evidence, it is critical that the investigator have timely access to as much information as possible.  To that end, the vehicle(s) involved in the collision should be examined promptly so that any hair or blood samples from the exterior of the vehicle can be collected.  Similarly, the site should be examined as soon as possible in order to identify any animal hair, blood deposits, carcasses or animal tracks leading to the collision area.

With a thorough and prompt investigation, an engineering analysis can determine how an animal contributed to a collision.  Depending on the available information, it may also be possible to determine the speed of the vehicle when it struck the animal, the driver’s perception-response time, the evasion potential for the collision and, with the aid of a visibility study, when the animal may have been visible as a hazard.


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