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In Alaska, you're more likely to be murdered than killed in a moose collision

Craig Medred
Denali National Park photo via Flickr

To hear the Los Angeles Times tell it -- with help from Alaska State Troopers and the Alaska Moose Federation -- it sounds dangerous to even pull the car your car onto a roadway in the 49th state.

"Alaska State Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said the agency has no records of how many people have been injured in moose collisions this year, but Alaska's history is replete with horror stories," the newspaper reported this week. '"I remember a wreck a few years back where all four people in the vehicle were killed after a moose was struck,' Peters said in an email."

Imagine, a crash with a moose could kill your whole family.

Peters might well have written an email making such a claim, but a quick search on Google, an amazing research tool for reporters these days, reveals no hint of a story about four dead in a collision with a moose in Alaska or anywhere else. And Joanna Reed, the traffic records research analyst overseeing the Fatality Analysis Reporting System for the Alaska Highway Safety Office, had this to say in an email:

"I have checked our records back through 1994 and have found no record of a crash with four fatalities involving a moose."

But why let facts get in the way of a good story?

After all, people do sometimes die in collisions with moose in Alaska. And the odds are high that if you drive enough in Alaska you will, sooner or later, run into a moose. Radio talk-show host Tom Anderson hit one just the other day. The damage to his car was minor as is often the case. "Scared the crap out of me," Anderson added on his Facebook page.

"I hit the brakes ... and clip its right hind leg. He kept running."

Anderson has spent most of his life in Alaska. This was bound to happen. A state study in the 1990s concluded the odds are about 1 in 1,000 that a regular commuter will eventually hit a moose in moosey areas of the state.

Those areas, fortunately, are small. About half of all moose-vehicle collisions happen along only 91 miles of roadway in the state. That's about a half of 1 percent of the state road system, according to the Alaska Department of Transportation.

Unfortunately, the 91 miles around which the moose congregate in winter largely overlap the state's few urban areas. One would think drivers might note this and be especially carefully, but there is no sign that they do. Moose-car collisions, for instance, increase in bad weather.

Drivers going too fast for the conditions can't get the car or truck stopped quick enough when a moose walks onto the road. Whammo. Damage can amount to the tens of thousands of dollars in these collisions, but the risks of death are pretty small.

"Only one-half of 1 percent of Alaska's moose-vehicle accidents result in a motorist fatality," the aforementioned state study noted. "Given this, the commuter mentioned above faces a 1 in 200,000 chance of striking a moose and being killed."

And remember, this commuter drives daily on that one-half of 1 percent of roadways with concentrations of moose. For motorists on 99.5 percent of the roads in Alaska, the odds of dying in a moose-motor vehicle accident are way less than 1 in 200,000, but let's stick to that figure.

"The commuter mentioned above is equally as likely to be involved in an alcohol-related traffic accident as a moose-vehicle accident," the state study reported. "They are five times more likely to have their car stolen than hit a moose. They are 1,000 times more likely to die from some other cause, including cancer, drowning, other car accidents, homicide, etc., than from a moose accident. The commuter is 16 times more likely to die as a victim of a homicide than from a collision with a moose."

Whoa! You're 16 times more likely to be murdered in the 49th state than to die as a result of your motor vehicle hitting a moose? This could almost make one wonder if the whole issue of moose-vehicle collisions isn't a little overhyped.

"'The problem with your typical moose is the body mass of the animal is far above most cars, so when a moose is struck it has an unfortunate tendency to come in the windshield, and sometimes not to trigger the airbags,"' Gary Olson of the Alaska Moose Federation, an advocacy group, told the Times. "With the increased fuel standards coming out of our capitol in D.C., the cars are getting smaller, and the moose aren't. So it's bad.'"

It is true that moose have a tendency to come over the hoods of small vehicles, which is why some Alaskans drive big trucks. And it is equally true that cars have been getting smaller. But all the available evidence would indicate things are going the opposite of "bad."

Moose-vehicle fatalities peaked in Alaska at six in 2007. There were no deaths in 2008. One unfortunate motorist died in 2009, but since then there hasn't been another death. Better lighting of roadways in moosey areas of the state could be part of the answer; so could better design of automobiles. They are now the safest they've ever been.

Despite this, wildlife can still kill people, but there are some indications deer might be even better at this than moose. Deer killed 17 people in Texas in 2007, the last year for which figures are readily available, and 15 in Wisconsin, and 11 in Iowa, and the list goes on and on. Alaska doesn't seem to be all that much different than other states in regards to collisions with animals killing people.

With its relatively small wildlife populations Alaska might actually be safer than other states in this regard. Despite all the hype about the bounty of the 49th state, the ecological reality of life is that, in general, the farther one moves north from the tropics the less wildlife the planet will support. There are about 150,000 moose in the Canadian province of Newfoundland. Alaska, which is four times the size but much farther north, has estimated moose population of 150,000 to 200,000.

In both areas, drivers run risks of hitting one with a motor vehicle.

There are protective steps that can be taken -- pay attention to the driving conditions, slow down on slippery roads, drive a vehicle big enough to knock an animal over instead of just taking its legs out, quit with the texting, which is illegal in Alaska anyway.

Still, the fact remains that fate can kill anyone, anywhere. Life is full of risks. You could die in a collision with a moose in the 49th state, but the risk is small and appears to be slipping down the list of dangers despite all the hype about a moose crisis in Alaska at the moment. For one thing, the worst is already past.

"The months of December and January are the worst (for collisions)," the state study found. "During these months Alaska has the least amount of daylight hours. ... This time of year also corresponds to the downward migration of moose as they search for food during winters of heavy snow accumulation. Roadways become more efficient pathways for moose and can become a deadly trap for them. This same peak period has been identified in northern Sweden and British Columbia."

The moose aren't moving much anymore. Most of them, state wildlife biologists note, are moving as little as possible to try to conserve energy. Most of the moose have settled into what they have decided will be their winter feeding area, and once there they largely stay put. Now, if only motorists would keep an eagle eye open for them when driving through these areas.

Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch. Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com