Too-Close Encounter with Moose
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.