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Too-Close Encounter with Moose

Too-Close Encounter with Moose
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moose in road
Late in the afternoon on June 29, 2000, I joined a club that’s not as exclusive as you might think. It’s the drivers-who’ve-hit-a-moose-in-a-vehicle club, and that year in Maine alone we had a membership of 640.

I joined the club not far from the Allagash River in the northern part of the state. Cruising alone around 50 mph in a Toyota pickup on a logging road, I did what every driving school graduate knows not to do: I took my eyes off the road, in this case to glance down at a map for a second or two. When I looked back up, I quickly discovered I would soon be sharing the road with a large herbivore, which was now trotting out from the scrubby birch and alders. I recall two fleeting thoughts in the milliseconds before impact.

First, I was struck by how instantly one can fully apprehend that life is about to take a distinctly unpleasant turn. My second thought was, “Oh, I really don’t want to be kicked to death.”

Just a few days earlier I had been chatting with a neighbor about moose collisions. He had quietly explained that the problem with moose wasn’t just that you might die instantly when all 1,000 pounds of it came crashing through your windshield. The more alarming problem was if neither you nor the moose were killed on impact. The dazed and wounded animal, now panicky and disoriented, would flail about in an effort to extricate itself. The moose, in short order, would kick you to death.

The impact that afternoon arrived with a sudden crunch, followed by an odd and furry eclipse in which the truck’s cab grew dark as the moose careened across the hood and into the windshield. I closed my eyes, hammered down on the brakes, and flattened myself across the passenger seat.

Why did I do this? Perhaps I thought the moose would continue right on through the back window, leaving me unscathed. Well, that didn’t happen. But I’m pleased to report one other detail: I wasn’t kicked to death, either. “The dynamic process is very complex,” says Magnus Gens, explaining to me precisely what happens when a car hits a moose. “The behavior of moose bodies is — how should I put this — very special.”

Magnus, who lives in Sweden, has thought more than the average person about the moose-automobile interface. He’s currently working on the Gripen fighter jet project at Saab Aerosystems, but three years ago he re-engineered the moose crash-test dummy for Saab’s car test center. The dummy is exactly what it sounds like: a life-size and durable faux moose that can be rammed repeatedly.

Moose collisions are not an idle matter in Sweden. An estimated 250,000 moose roam an area about two and a half times the size of New England, and Sweden on average records more than a dozen moose collisions every day. (By comparison, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts are home to perhaps 40,000 moose, and the four states average about three collisions per day.)

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.”

Updated Friday, April 18th, 2008

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