On the road: a beast of burden
Not so much the elephant in the room as the Nellie on the bonnet, one of the less trumpeted pitfalls of increasingly stringent pedestrian impact legislation is that all car componentry forward of the front wheels is now made from materials sufficiently flimsy to make My Little Pony accessories seem Irn Bru-robust.
Now, whilst this may prove somewhat less of a headache to those prone to looking the wrong way when crossing the road, it doesn’t always seem such a kindness in the context of a wildlife encounter.
RSPCA research suggests that, of the two million or so deer bumbling around our countryside, some 75,000 are involved in vehicle collisions every year, of which 10,000 are killed instantly. These statistics simultaneously account for between 10 and 20 human fatalities per annum, and vehicle repair bills totalling a staggering £17m.
But what of the 65,000 wounded survivors? Given the gruesome dilemma confronting drivers on such occasions (in the absence of a bolt-gun from the boot’s repair kit, a distraught friend recently spent an hour hunting down a shotgun owner), I can’t help feeling the steel cliff that is the front of my old Land Rover would automatically take a slightly more humane approach to such encounters.
Still, with today’s flimsy radiator grille flinching at so much as a glimpse of a suicidal stoat, and even a stoutly struck pheasant leaving a modern car looking as if it’s been assaulted by a howitzer shell, it’s a good job that – the occasional errant dobbin or somnambulant Jersey aside – deer are the largest species we have to contend with on UK roads. Pity, then, the plight of the Swedes…
There are some 600,000 moose on the loose in Sweden and, in some districts, they account for up to a quarter of all road traffic accidents. A full grown bull moose weighs in at well over 1,000lbs, and is more than likely to have left his insurance documents at home.
Resembling a somewhat hastily constructed horse with the nose bag permanently sewn into position and joke antlers, a moose has excessively long legs with the structural integrity of a Twiglet. And when you assault one with a rapidly moving car, the legs offer no resistance to the front bumper whatsoever. The body, meanwhile, passes quickly through the involuntary bonnet mascot stage and immediately thereafter attempts, via the windscreen, to acquire passenger status.
Eric Carlsson, rally supremo of the early sixties and Saab’s self-confessed crash-test dummy (RIP x two), once had just such a spot of bother: “Late one evening in 1957, I was driving some friends home; doing about 70mph,” he told me. And I saw something in mid-air, coming from the bank beside the road. It turned out to be a big bull moose of about 1,700lbs, and that’s more or less the last I could see because it tipped over into the windscreen…”
“Both front tyres exploded, the valves shot out and the windscreen smashed. The moose split open and the, um, contents went straight through the car and ended up in the rear window. None of us were hurt,” Eric recalled, “but we had a whole car full of pooh… Trouble is; you can repair the damage, but you can’t clean the upholstery and you never, ever get rid of the smell.”
Never mind the simple moose swerve testing that proved the downfall of Mercedes’ A-Class, then; recognising the inevitability of impact, Saab’s crash-test engineers regularly wrapped 850lbs of assorted insulated steel cable around a 4×2 timber ‘spine’ with an old blanket, propped it up at moose body height, and charged it down with one of their latest models.
Their convertibles, too, passed this test. Though, after learning of Eric Carlsson’s experiences, I’d hate to be sitting in the back of one; particularly mid yawn.
However, even the Swedes should count themselves lucky, because the most lethal coming together of vehicle and wildlife of all still regularly takes place in East Africa, on the main road between Nairobi and Mombasa, which neatly bisects Tsavo National Park, unfenced home to some 11,000 elephants.
When I was a toddler, this major artery lacked tarmac. Entirely daubed in deep-red murram dust to perfectly match the unmade road surface, and bereft of running lights, the resident pachyderm population proved almost impossible to pick out in the dim glow of ancient headlights. Barrel headlong into a bull elephant and no one walks away.