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Too-Close Encounter with Moose

Too-Close Encounter with Moose
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Designing the dummy was not just a matter of hammering together a gangly quadruped out of logs and two-by-fours. The dummy has to behave precisely like a moose upon impact. This requires some complex engineering, Magnus says, especially for the legs, which have to give way like the real thing.
The legs of a moose are uncommonly long — around 4 feet — putting virtually all of the heavy body well above the hood of a standard-size automobile. A car tends not to slow much upon hitting the legs, so a crash with a moose is not akin to hitting a tree or a telephone pole, with driver being hurled into windshield or air bag. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the moose’s spindly and insubstantial legs shatter almost immediately, then behave “almost like steel ropes,” says Magnus. The stubby cloven hooves become wedged under the moving car, and the now-ropey legs sling the bulk of the moose downward at an accelerating speed while the driver hurtles directly into its path.

Windshields are designed to keep out insects, rain, and the occasional pebble. They are not engineered to deflect a moose traveling at high velocity. So the windshield shatters, and the moose often crushes one or both of the corner posts that support the roof and hold the windshield in place. The moose ends up in the front seat, or in higher-speed accidents, in the back seat. “We have beams and welding protecting us from every side except the windscreen,” notes Magnus.

The Holy Grail in moose-proofing a car is to design it such that the passenger compartment remains inviolate, and a hit moose is deflected over the top. How to best design this is the subject of some debate; Saab and Volvo by most accounts manufacture the most moose-proof cars by reinforcing the corner posts, but considerable room for improvement exists. One Norwegian inventor has been peddling a patented design for a third corner post that would bisect the windshield, making the car rather more tank-like.

Don’t look for such improvements at your local auto dealer, though. Magnus says his moose dummy has seen little action since it was first tested on three cars — two brand-new Saabs and a used Volvo — after which the data was neatly filed away. The market for a moose-proof car happens to be quite small — the population of areas where moose collisions are a problem simply isn’t large enough to move the whole market. “It’s rather sad,” Magnus says. “If moose were all over North America and Japan, you would probably see some changes.”

Building what amounts to a mobile bunker to defend against herds of errant moose may seem an overreaction. But New Englanders may not think it such a bizarre notion for long. Moose are steadily marching south into populated areas, and the odds of having an impromptu meeting with a moose are correspondingly rising. More than 1,000 moose collisions are recorded in a typical year in New England, and that number stands to swell.

Drivers across the northern tier of New England from Burlington, Vermont, to Houlton, Maine, have long been keenly aware of the dangers. Last June, Dana Carbonneau, a 46-year-old principal at Orleans Elementary School, was driving home on Vermont’s Route 14 from the school graduation to his home in Barre. Around 9:00 that night, a moose stepped out into the roadway; he hit it, then veered into the pathway of an oncoming truck.

Carbonneau, who had been principal at the school for eight years, died before he reached the hospital. His students hung a banner across the front of the school reading, “We miss you, Mr. C.” He was the 11th Vermonter to die in a collision with a moose.

Cedric Alexander, a state wildlife biologist in Vermont, says that while the Vermont moose herd hasn’t grown much in recent years, the moose are starting to stir, exploiting new ranges and trending south. Drivers in the state’s Northeast Kingdom have been trained to be alert for moose for the past couple of decades, but residents of southern Vermont are only beginning their education. “It’s a new phenomenon down near the Massachusetts state line,” Cedric says.

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