PORTLAND, Maine—Troopers are stepping up traffic enforcement over the Memorial Day weekend. But that's not the only reason motorists across the region should slow down.
Spring's arrival has sent moose scampering onto roadways, causing a spate of crashes including one that killed a man on one of Maine's busiest highways, Interstate 295. The problems are most acute at night, when the moose are active and their dark color makes them nearly invisible to hapless motorists.
The massive creatures with spindly legs, bulbous noses and massive heft that easily tops 1,000 pounds are commonly seen in popular culture as lovable creatures like the cartoon character Bullwinkle. But Stephen McCausland from the Maine Department of Public Safety sees them in a different light.
"Moose is Maine's most deadly animal," he said.
In Maine, which has the nation's biggest moose population outside Alaska, moose have caused crashes across the state, even in cities where motorists don't expect them.
Duane Brunelle from the Maine Department of Transportation's safety office suspects that spring's early arrival caused moose to become active earlier than normal. The conventional wisdom, Brunelle said, is that moose end up along busy roads when they flee from the woods to escape swarming insects.
But Canadian research shows that moose are attracted to winter's coating of salt deposited alongside highways. Compounding the problem is that yearlings, like their human teenage counterparts, behave unpredictably, said Lee Kantar, state deer and moose biologist with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Motorists across the region must be wary, especially between dusk and dawn when 88 percent of encounters between moose and vehicles take place, Brunelle said. Each year, there are about 600 of the collisions in Maine, he said.
Hitting a moose isn't like hitting a deer or other smaller animal. Because moose are tall and can top 1,000 pounds, their body mass tends to crash into a vehicle's windshield.
So far, a number of people have been seriously injured across the region. Jose Jarez of Scarborough was killed on May 4 when a car in which he was riding slammed into a moose on I-295 in Topsham. A second vehicle hit the dead animal and vaulted forward, landing on its roof and skidding down the road.
There have been encounters in other parts of northern New England, as well.
On May 22, a passenger in a car traveling on Route 9 in the town of Marlboro in southern Vermont was injured when two cars hit a moose that wandered into the road. Four days later at that other end of Vermont a motorist hit and killed two moose standing in Route 102 in Brunswick.
Back in Maine, a man was seriously injured when his motorcycle hit a moose in Caribou. And a pair of police cruisers in different parts of the state hit moose.
A collision in which a moose jumped in front of Trooper Tim Saucier's unmarked cruiser near Ashland was captured on his dashboard video camera. A video of the collision, which happened during daylight hours, shows just how quickly things can go badly for motorists.
Saucier's cruiser smashed into the yearling, which tumbled into the driver's side windshield, showering Saucier with shards of glass. Saucier was uninjured and used his gun to euthanize the injured the moose.
The official guidance on avoiding moose collisions comes as no surprise. Motorists should slow down and scan the sides of the road, as well as the road ahead, Brunelle said.