A Hartebeest Blindsides a Biker: What Animal Is the Deadliest Killer on the Road?

Is the Hartebeest the Deadliest Animal on the Road?

Is the Hartebeest the Deadliest Animal on the Road?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 12 2011 8:13 PM

Rhino Crossing Ahead

Which animal makes for the deadliest hazard on the road?

How dangerous are collisions with animals?
How dangerous are collisions with animals?

Photograph by Digital Vision/Thinkstock.

A video of a cyclist blindsided by an antelope went viral on YouTube Tuesday, attracting millions of views in a matter of hours. The buck was a red hartebeest, a South African species reported to weigh more than 300 pounds and run at 30 miles per hour. The cyclist, 17-year-old Evan van der Spuy, suffered whiplash and a minor concussion but no other serious injuries. Which animal makes for the deadliest hazard on the road?

Probably the moose. Animal-vehicle collisions (AVCs, in the lingo of transportation statistics) are common all over the world, but only collisions with the largest animals tend to result in human fatalities. A moose can weigh more than half a ton, and because its center of gravity lies above the level of most vehicles’ front hoods, this bulk is often thrown straight into the windshield. Furthermore, moose and other members of the deer family often live near high-speed motorways, and their dark coloring makes them difficult to spot at night. While deer are responsible for most reported AVCs in North America—they account for as many as 90 percent in some U.S. states—moose collisions result in a much higher rate of human injury and death. One study of AVCs in Maine concluded that approximately 82 percent of the human fatalities that result from these accidents involve a wayward moose.

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A 2008 U.S. Department of Transportation report concluded that about 5 percent of U.S. motor vehicle collisions, or between 1 and 2 million crashes per year, involve animals. That number reflects an increase of approximately 50 percent between 1990 and 2004, when deer populations grew and Americans racked up more and more miles in their cars. When it comes to AVCs, large animals do the most damage, and fast animals are most likely to dart into the road unexpectedly. But few potential roadkill have the moose’s combination of size, speed, and proximity to traffic. Camels and horses may be similar in speed and size to moose, but they tend to be tied up or confined.

Road moose pose less of a problem in other countries. In Australia, for example, kangaroos and wallabies pose the primary animal hazard for motorists. Many Australians even equip their cars with “roo bars” to guard against such collisions. Yet kangaroos only weigh up to about 200 pounds and wallabies are even smaller, and so these collisions are rarely fatal. In Africa, a large antelope, like the giant eland, could do as much damage as a moose, but most of these animals graze a little farther from the freeways.

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is Slate’s culture editor.

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Explainer thanks Patrick McGowen of the Western Transportation Institute.