FORT KENT, Maine — The sight of moose along the roads is often startling and unwelcome for Maine drivers.
Popular with tourists, the state’s largest mammals are the bane of anyone looking to travel safely to their destination, and the Maine Department of Transportation has taken steps to reduce the number of moose-vehicle collisions.
Between 2004 and 2013, there were 5,349 moose-vehicle collisions statewide, resulting in 17 fatalities, 1,080 injuries and more than $93.2 million in property damage, according to information supplied by Greg Costello of the MDOT crash records section.
For transportation and safety officials, mitigating moose-vehicle accidents is a priority.
“We live in this nice state of scenic beauty and wildlife all around us,” said Duane Brunell, MDOT safety office manager. “But we build roads across habitats and want to do what we reasonably can through a number of ways to reduce the possibility of hazards on those roads.”
Some of the highest incident rates for moose-vehicle accidents are in Aroostook County on two of its main north-south arteries — U.S. Route 1 and Route 161 — which is where MDOT first looked for mitigation projects.
“We started out on Route 161 by putting up really large moose warning signs with flashing lights that are activated by [approaching] vehicles,” Steve Landry, MDOT traffic engineer, said earlier this summer. “Every time a vehicle goes by, it flashes to get the driver’s attention and warn them it is an area of high moose concentration.”
There were 119 moose-vehicle crashes on that 56-mile stretch of Route 161 between 2004 and 2008.
From 2009, which is when the signs went up, to 2013, that number dropped to 77.
Around that same time, MDOT placed reflector poles along two sections of Route 1, between Connor and Van Buren. A year ago they placed more on a section Route 1 north of Van Buren.
The reflectors are placed at a specific height and distance apart to catch the headlights of approaching vehicles.
“These serve dual benefits,” Brunell said. “They improve overall road visibility, and as a driver when you see a ‘break’ in the reflection you know there is something large about to cross in front of you.”
However, according to Costello’s data, the number of moose-vehicle accidents on the section of Route 161 in Connor actually has gone up since the reflectors were installed — from 63 between 2004 and 2008 to 72 between 2009 and 2013.
Despite that, Brunell said the reflectors have been well received by the driving public and said there are plans to install more.
According to Landry, there was an initial reduction in moose-vehicle accidents along the Connor stretch when the reflectors first went in, but he said it’s difficult to draw direct, causal conclusions.
“One thing that is tricky is a lot of times moose-vehicle crashes are cyclical in an area,” he said. “If you kill off a bull moose in an area, it can take awhile for another bull to take over that area, and that can impact the numbers you see there.”
Also, moose-vehicle accident rates are seasonal, according to Brunell, with the highest number of incidents reported in May and June.
“Moose are on the move in May and June,” Mark Latti, spokesman for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said. “The yearlings are pushed away from their mothers as they prepare to give birth, and the availability of their natural foods is better near the roads than deeper in the woods at that time.”
MDOT has several other plans in the works, according to Landry, including a “moose illuminator project,” which would be placed along sections of Route 161.
Designed in cooperation with students in the University of Maine’s electrical engineering department, the installation would place LED lights along areas of known high moose concentration that would turn on after dark when a vehicle approaches. The intent is to light up the roadway and hopefully reveal any roadside moose.
“That project was just finished up this past spring,” Landy said.
To date, according to Brunell, the lights have not been installed.
According to Andrew Sheaff, of the UMaine Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, students Matt Herbert and Matthew Merritt worked on the project as part of their senior project.
“The idea is that this particular section of [Route 161] has lots of moose,” Sheaff said. “As a car approaches one of the illuminators, a radar detects it and the light turns on. And when the car passes, it turns back off.”
The process sounds simple, Sheaff said. But with the potential for traffic coming in both directions and vehicles stopping for any moose that do happen to be in the road, the students needed to figure out a way for the lights to detect when to turn off and on.
“This was a really cool project,” he said. “And we hope it will help out motorists avoid moose.”
Not all moose mitigation methods turn out quite as well, Landry said.
On Route 4 in Phillips, known for moose-vehicle accidents, MDOT placed small rocks about 4 to 5 inches in diameter along the roadside slopes, Landry said. Moose, he said, tend to avoid such surfaces, as their hooves go between the loose rocks.
Not only was the rock project a bit expensive, it had the opposite intended effect.
“It could funnel the moose right out into the road when they got to a harder surface to walk on,” Landry said.
But MDOT officials are not giving up.
“We are always looking at different things,” Landry said. “We will keep putting things out there.”
In the end, driver attention is likely the best defense, Brunell and Landry said.
Moose-vehicle accidents tend to happen at dawn or after dark, Brunell said, advising motorists to be extra cautious at those times.
“Watch the roadsides and keep your speeds down,” he said. “If something does come out of the side of the road, you have time to react.”