MACHIAS, Maine — Lots of people in Washington County have a story that includes a near miss with a moose or a collision with a deer that results in a shattered windshield, crumpled bumper or even a trip to the hospital.
In Maine, one out of every 245 vehicles will hit a deer or moose in the next 12 months, according to statistics compiled by State Farm Insurance.
Compare that with one in every 57 vehicles in West Virginia, or one in every 16,624 in Hawaii.
In Washington County, the stories often involve Route 9, also known as the Airline on its leg that runs from Brewer to Route 1 just west of Calais. The highway has the local reputation of being rife with roaming wildlife, particularly at dusk and dawn.
Nancy Asante of Perry recalled driving on Route 9 recently.
“On a pitch-black stretch I came over a small hill at a good clip,” she said, “and saw a young moose standing calmly in the middle of the road. I honked, swerved and braked simultaneously and fortunately avoided an accident. The moose never moved.”
In early October, Stephen Savage of Machias was on his way to Boston for a doctor’s appointment. He was heading west on Route 9 about 1:30 a.m.
“He dodged wild animals all the way — fox, coyote, beaver, deer,” said his wife, Maxine. “Until Amherst.”
Coming around a curve, Savage encountered a cow moose standing in the roadway. The moose struck the windshield, flipped onto the roof and slid down the back of the car. The moose died instantly and Savage ended up in the hospital with cuts and bruises and a minor head injury.
He was lucky.
With an adult bull moose in its prime weighing as much as 1,600 pounds, moose pose serious risks to Maine motorists. Deer crashes are not as likely to kill a driver, but they nevertheless rack up millions of dollars in damage. The Maine Department of Transportation estimated that for the two-year period 2008-09, collisions involving large wildlife resulted in economic losses of more than $97 million.
But are there more accidents in Washington County, particularly on Route 9?
Statistics compiled by the Maine Department of Transportation show that over the past five years, there have been 203 crashes involving vehicles and moose or deer on Route 9 between Eddington and the Canadian border.
Only one was a fatal crash — that was in 2007 — but 26 involved injuries, including two crashes that caused incapacitating injuries.
In that five-year span, the worst moose-vehicle crash year was 2005, with 17, and the worst deer-vehicle crash year was 2008, with 31.
That winter, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife deer and moose biologist Lee Kanter said Friday, the snow was particularly deep and deer often used Route 9 as a walking path.
Near a deer wintering yard in Amherst, more than 40 deer were struck along a 2-mile stretch of road just in the 2007-08 winter.
That winter, at the same Amherst deer yard, a tractor-trailer struck five deer in one crash, several of them pregnant.
According to a U.S. Department of Transportation study, 11.7 percent of all vehicle crashes in Maine involve animals, and the majority of these crashes take place in November, which is deer mating month.
The most dangerous county
The statistics are impressive; the road is clearly dangerous. But, the experts were asked, is the Airline the most dangerous road?
Not by a long shot, they answered.
The highest frequency of moose crashes in Maine is in Aroostook County, which had more than 17 moose-car crashes per 100 million miles traveled in 2009.
Piscataquis and Franklin counties had the next-highest, with 13 to 17 crashes per 100 million miles traveled, according to DOT.
The lowest crash frequencies — ranging from fewer than one to 2.2 crashes per 100 million miles traveled, according to a previous Bangor Daily News report — were found along the coast of Maine, where deer outnumber moose.
DOT’s statistics also show that there are as many animal-vehicle crashes on the side roads and highways in Washington County as on Route 9. Also in 2005-10, there were six moose crashes on Route 1 between Calais and Indian Township, 25 between Hancock and Machias on Route 1, four on Route 182, nine on Route 192 and nine more on Route 193.
“It’s no surprise that they are everywhere,” Maine state Trooper Timothy Varney said Friday. “There was a moose crash in downtown Ellsworth [in Hancock County] by the Blueberry Ice Cream shop this week.”
He said he has responded to reports of moose crashes throughout Washington County, including many on Routes 1 and 6, but added, “Route 9 does get the majority of them.”
Varney said he has patrolled Route 9 for 21 years and has seen every type of animal-related crash possible.
The peak times of animal movement are May, when they are seeking salt on roadsides, and October and November during the rut, or breeding season.
Varney said he hears the same statement from every accident victim: “I never saw [the animal], or I saw it too late to react.”
Varney said rural Route 9 is full of peaks, valleys and curves. Many of them border or bisect swamps or rivers.
“But when you see the deer or moose really is based on the animal population, the time of day and year and the weather,” he said. “Dusk and dawn, it is hard to see them, but they really do come out into the roadway at all times of day.”
Here is where the DOT statistics back up anecdotal stories. From 2005 to 2010, 63 of the 70 moose crashes on Route 9 happened in low light conditions — dawn or dusk. During that same time span, 82 of the 133 deer crashes were in low light.
DOT research shows that most animal-vehicle crashes are in clear weather, on straight roads, at speeds of 50 to 55 mph and by out-of-state drivers not familiar with Maine wildlife.
“My best advice? Drive prudently,” Varney said.
The deer population
Kanter said the deer population has been closely studied in Washington County for decades. It may seem as though deer are everywhere, he said, but the county’s deer population actually is far smaller than 60 years ago.
“Washington County is struggling with its deer numbers,” he said.
Kanter could not provide estimates of the herd numbers in Washington County, but Maine’s deer population is estimated by DIF&W to be 255,000.
Maine’s herd of about 30,000 moose is larger than any other state’s except Alaska.
That’s why it’s hardly surprising that each year there are roughly 700 car-moose crashes, as many as five resulting in fatalities to drivers or passengers, as in 1998 and 2007.
Kanter said the hilly, steep areas on the Airline in Amherst and Wesley are places where the deer gather and migrate to their winter habitat.
DOT, in an effort to warn visitors, has placed seasonal signs on Route 9 in the Amherst area advising that it is a high deer-strike area.
It seems no one is exempt from encountering a lumbering moose in the middle of the road. In May, two Maine state troopers on patrol on opposite ends of the state — one in Casco and the other in Ashland — both slammed into moose.
A year ago, Sgt. Thomas Chambers of the Washington County Sheriff’s Department was nearly killed when he swerved to avoid hitting a moose on Route 214.
Chambers was headed to check on the well-being of an elderly man. His cruiser rolled over, sheared through trees and trapped him inside.
“I was terrified,” he said after the crash.
Duane Brunell, DOT safety manager, who collects the animal versus vehicle accident statistics, summed up the big message for drivers sharing Maine’s roads with wildlife.
“Driving is a full-time task and so much of a crash story is driver behavior,” he said. “Nighttime is not the time to open it up on Maine’s roads. You need all the time you can get to react to any situation.”
Watching for wildlife on Maine’s roads
The Maine Department of Transportation suggests these tips for avoiding or minimizing damage from hitting a moose or deer:
• Be alert and watch for wildlife, especially from dusk to dawn, when moose are most active and hardest to spot. Always scan the roadside for moose and other hidden hazards.
• Use your high beams whenever it is legal to do so.
• Reduce your speed. Do not overdrive your headlights; allow enough sight distance to react and stop if an animal enters the roadway. At 70 mph, a typical speed on Interstate 95, it takes nearly 500 feet to bring a car to a stop under ideal daytime driving conditions, according to DOT studies. At 50 mph, it takes more than 400 feet to stop.
• Heed warning signs. They are posted in areas of high concentrations of wildlife and where collisions have been a problem.
• Moose sometimes travel in small family groups, so if you see one on the roadway, be prepared for others nearby.
• If you encounter a moose, don’t try to drive around it, and don’t get out of the car. Moose are unpredictable and have been known to charge. Give the moose plenty of room; it eventually will wander back into the woods.
If a crash is unavoidable, motorists are advised to:
• Apply the brakes, letting up just before impact.
• Aim to hit the back end of the animal if possible.
• Duck to minimize injury.
Source: Maine Department of Transportation in cooperation with Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Maine Secretary of State’s Office, Maine Department of Public Safety and Maine Turnpike Authority.