Guest Column: An Avoidable Conflict by Dan Namowitz

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1992:

Would you fly in an airplane if upon boarding you beheld a
sign proclaiming, “Notice: the flight crew is trained to cope with nor-
mal operations only. The management is not responsible for the per-
formance of the pilots under emergency conditions.”?
Would you ride aboard a train or an ocean liner, if the engi-
neer or captain had received no emergency training?
What kind of emergency training should the driver of an
automobile undergo? With all the loss-of-control accidents that occur
on icy roads at the beginning of each new winter, and all the
animal/automobile collisions that occur each spring and summer, it is
obvious that drivers whose normal operating environments involve
certain predictable hazards are doing a poor job of dealing with emer-
gencies, resulting in unnecessary death and injury.

And predictably, in the cases involving animals, one pro-
posed “solution” to the problem of animals straying into roadways is
hunting more of the animals, not training better drivers. In a society
that seems to become less capable of compassion and sacrifice with
every passing day, it is now possible to enjoy a cup of coffee at a
roadside eatery known as the Roadkill Cafe. There are several such
restaurants in this area. One has a sign out front that shows an auto-
mobile wheel about to squish a raccoon, and the menu offers “Bye
bye Bambi burgers.”
From moles to moose, America’s roadsides become littered,
each summer day, with an astonishing assortment of wildlife killed
by cars and trucks. Warnings about the hazard consist mainly of the
occasional sign warning that certain large animals may cross the road
in specific areas. A few concientious motorists affix “I brake for ani-
mals” bumper stickers to their vehicles––but the notion of braking for
animals is still considered by many to be quaint, if not downright
flaky. “I am not going to risk hitting a tree or spinning out of control
to avoid a skunk,” a friend of mine said recently, expressing a rather
typical view.
With so many people expressing such attitudes, the hunting
lobby has spied an opening. Here in Maine, where an “experimental”
moose-hunting season went into effect a decade ago, the call is now
going out to expand the hunt because moose are “causing” collisions.
In a strongly pro-hunting state, few people, and virtually no public
officials, have been courageous enough to point out that attempts
have been made by hunting interests to expand the moose hunt every
year since it was initiated, despite promises that no such attempts
would be made. Pointing out that the moose may be a highway haz-
ard seems to be the tactic the hunting lobby needs to get what it could-
n’t by any other means. The largely unquestioning media are now
echoing the call for more moose hunting with no feel for its irony.
As a journalist and a professional flight instructor, I wonder
how many motorists are prepared, mentally or physically, to cope
with the sudden appearance of an animal in the roadway? How many
collisions between cars and animals could have been avoided if the
driver had anticipated the possiblility of a collision and considered a
plan of action in advance?
I train pilots for a living. On every level, whether the
trainees are seeking to fly personal aircraft or become commercial
pilots, the key to passing their flight exams is demonstrating safe
operating practices, good judgement, and knowledge of emergency
procedures. These students are faced with numerous types of simulat-
ed emergencies during training: engine and equipment failures, fires,
electrical malfunctions, flight into unforecast adverse weather––there
is even information on how to avoid bird strikes in flight. Dealing
with distractions and demonstrating “situational awareness” are
important parts of normal pilot training.
Compare this to the way we drive cars today. A car isn’t a
car any more; it’s an environment built for our relaxation and plea-
sure, designed to make minimal demands on us as drivers. If drivers
were trained like pilots, the major change would be in the mental
approach to driving. They would be trained to think ahead, to sys-
tematically scan the road from side to side, to ask themselves what
they will do if a deer is standing in the road around the next bend, or
whether those gleaming pinpricks of light up ahead might be reflec-
tions in the eyes of a small animal crossing the road. A little less
speed, and timely, gentle braking coordinated with gentle avoidance
maneuvers could save many human and animal lives. But first the
driver has to be thinking avoidance, not fumbling with the tape
player or gabbing on the cellular telephone.
An ounce of prevention, as the old saying goes, is worth a
pound of cure. But most drivers give no thought to the ever-present
possibility of a collision with an animal. Then the animal is blamed
for the marginal skills of drivers–and the call goes out for more hunt-
If ever blaming the victim were unnecessary, this is the
classic case. More training won’t avoid all the collisions, but neither
will more hunting. Heaven forbid that we motorists––we the people
who built roads through the habitat of animals––might place a little
more responsibility for our own well-being on ourselves.
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