What To Do When Your Car Collides With Wildlife

Mary Van Keuren
Mary Van Keuren

Colliding with an animal while you’re behind the wheel can be frightening and dangerous — and not just for the animal. The U.S. Federal Highway Administration estimates that there are approximately 26,000 injuries per year attributable to wildlife-vehicle collisions (WVCs). That’s probably an undercount, since many people don’t report collisions, and it doesn’t take into account collisions involving pets. 

There is likely to be damage to your car in these collisions, especially if you hit a larger animal such as a deer. In that case, you want to have the best possible car insurance so you can be reimbursed for the repair work, minus your deductible. WVCs are covered under comprehensive insurance, which is optional but well worth it if you live in a rural area or other region with a high wildlife population.

Being prepared for an animal collision is even more important during the pandemic, as many people are foregoing plane or train travel and instead are driving to their destinations. With more cars on the road, accidents of any kind will be more common. Winter and early spring weather, in particular, see more wild animals crossing major thoroughfares, especially at dusk and dawn.

Even if you’re a careful driver, you can be involved in a WVC. Animals can be unpredictable and quick, and it only takes a second for one of our furry friends to dart into the road. Deer, in particular, account for the most traffic accidents in many states. There are roughly 30 million deer in America, and no matter where you live, it’s likely that you’ll encounter them.

In this report we’ll take a closer look at what you can do to prepare yourself for a WVC, and what you should do when one occurs.

What To Consider Before Getting Behind The Wheel 

Animal accidents can happen at any time of year and any time of day, and aren’t limited to rural areas. Smaller animals, from cats to squirrels, wander city streets regularly, while some urban areas have reported an increase in deer near parks — and even bears

No matter where you’re driving, you may be on a road that cuts through a regular migration path or a breeding ground. Winter weather creates further challenges, both on the road and for wildlife, leading them to search far and wide for food. The animals don’t understand what might happen when they step onto the tarmac — so it’s up to you to do so for them.

The takeaway? It pays to be prepared for an accident even before you get behind the wheel, no matter where you’re driving, or when. Consider these scenarios:

  • You’re headed with your family to a relative’s home for Christmas dinner. The icy road winds through a mountain valley. You suddenly see a deer gracefully step out of the forest on the right side ahead of you.
  • You’re going back to college after summer break and are driving through the suburban streets that surround your institution. A small beagle suddenly darts out into the road.
  • You’re driving through the city to reach an evening appointment and suddenly in the glare of your headlights you see two eyes reflected back at you. Could that possibly be … a coyote?

In all three of these cases, being aware of your surroundings and having an understanding of animal behavior will help you. 

What to Consider Actions You Can Take
Know the wildlife where you’re drivingIf you’re driving down a tree-lined suburban street, be on the lookout for dogs and cats, along with the ubiquitous squirrel. Driving through a forested area, however, should have you scanning the sides of the road for deer or even moose. If you know ahead of time what to look for, you’ve taken a big step toward road safety.
Know what times animals are most active near your road A little knowledge can go a long way toward protecting you. Many wild animals such as deer are most active at dawn and dusk. Bear, meanwhile, are more visible on roads in spring and summer months. Domestic cats like to prowl in the nighttime, while dogs are more comfortable with daytime wandering.
Practice defensive drivingIt goes without saying that you should always be aware of all activity around you when driving — whether it’s other cars or animals. Drivers ed teachers train their students to scan the road in front of them, including the edges of the road and any foliage beyond. If you see a deer standing at the edge of a treed area, don’t wait for it to jump on the road before you slow down.
Keep your car well-maintainedMake sure your windshield is clear and clean whenever you drive. Make it a regular task to wipe your headlights, too, so that you are getting the full benefit of their light at night to clearly see animals or objects on the road.
Avoid distractionsDon’t eat or switch out CDs while you’re driving, and of course do not text or use your phone. Avoid any activities that will take your eyes off the road, even if it’s just for an instant.
Be on the lookout for more animalsMany animals travel in groups, especially during summer and fall months when they have babies with them who may not be road-wise. If a single deer crosses the road in front of you, stop and wait if possible — there will likely be more.
Know when it’s appropriate to stop, swerve, or strikeIf you can, stopping can be the best option, but be aware of cars behind you and road conditions. Do not swerve unless you are sure you’re not going to hit another car or stationary object. Trying to avoid an animal can leave you at risk of an even more serious accident. Sometimes, the only thing you can do is to hit the animal. Slow down as much as you can, and aim your car toward the animal’s rear end. Crouch low in your seat so the dashboard gives you some protection if it’s a large animal. But consider this: if you’re driving in the northern U.S. or Canada, swerving may be better if you’re facing a moose. A moose can weigh 1,200 pounds, and the impact can total your car, seriously injure you and put your life at risk.
Use your high beamsFlashing your high beams at night may scare an animal off the road — and it allows you to pick out an animal from farther away. If you see one in your headlights, slow down immediately and tap your horn repeatedly. 
If another car hits an animalIf a car near you hits an animal, slow down, tapping your brakes to alert drivers behind you. The scene can be confusing, especially at night, so be aware that an injured animal might dart into the road. Drive by carefully. If you wish to stop and help, do so a safe distance from the accident, and well off the road. Don’t rubberneck, which can cause another accident.

What Should I Do If I’ve Collided With A Wild Animal?

If you find yourself in a collision, don’t panic. It can be a frightening experience, but staying in charge and focused can help you manage the situation properly. Take a deep breath and spring into action with the following steps:

  • Take a quick inventory to assure yourself that both you and your passengers are not injured. 
  • Move your car to a safe place off the road, and turn on your hazard lights. You don’t want to make the situation worse by getting rear-ended. 
  • If you haven’t already, alert the police, especially if you’re dealing with a large animal and it is blocking traffic.
  • If you can do so safely, document the situation by taking photos of the road, your car, and the animal. If witnesses stop to help, get their contact information. All this will be helpful when you file your insurance claim.
  • If the animal is only injured, do not go near it, no matter how much you might want to help it. You can put yourself at risk of injury.
  • As soon as you can safely do so, call your insurance company, or file an online claim if your company offers this service. 
  • Even if your car appears to be driveable, be careful about getting back on the road. If a tow truck was called, allow them to assess your car — there could be hidden damage. Look under the hood and under the car itself for loose hoses, leaking fluids, and other safety issues.

What Should I Do If I’ve Collided With Someone’s Pet?

Colliding with someone’s pet is rarely as damaging to your car as colliding with a large wild animal, but there are other concerns to consider. A pet probably has a loving owner who may be nearby, and can take control of the animal’s care. Pets are considered the personal property of their owner, so one of your first tasks should be to find them and let them know what has happened. 

Here are the steps you should take if you hit a cat or dog:

  • Move your car safely off the road and put on your flashers.
  • If traffic allows, check the animal. If it’s only wounded, you may want to consider carefully removing it from the road — but be advised that even a tame pet can lash out and hurt you; use extreme caution.
  • If the animal is wearing tags with an owner listed, call the number on the tag. If not, ask at the closest homes to see if you can find the owner. 
  • Even if your car is fine, we don’t suggest driving off and leaving the animal without making an effort to find the owner — if it was your pet, you wouldn’t want someone to drive away and leave it; it’s only right to do the same for others. It may also be the law. The burden of responsibility for a pet’s care legally falls on the owner, but leaving the scene of an accident without rendering aid may put you in a legally gray area. You can check the animal laws in your state to find out what your responsibilities are from a legal standpoint.
  • If you can’t find the owner, consider calling the local animal control or police so the injured animal can receive care.
  • Inspect your car to ensure there is no damage. If there is, the pet’s owner may be liable for repairs — another reason for trying to locate them. 

Will My Car Insurance Cover Damage Caused By Hitting An Animal? 

Knowing if your car insurance will cover you is important even before you get behind the wheel. It’s worth reviewing your policy to see if you have the type of insurance that will cover this damage, which is called comprehensive coverage. It isn’t mandatory in the U.S., but is available as optional coverage from insurers.

Although adding comprehensive coverage to your policy will increase your premium, it’s well worth considering, especially if you drive frequently in areas that have a large wild animal population. If you don’t have comprehensive, you’ll need to pay for animal-caused damage to your car out of your own pocket.

If you do have comprehensive coverage, we can’t stress this enough: document your accident as soon as you can after it happens. Your insurer may send out an assessor who will inspect your car’s damage after the fact, but it is also helpful for them if they can see the road conditions and the damage from the time of the accident.

Comprehensive coverage is considered part of a full-coverage policy, along with liability and collision coverage. The average car insurance policy in the U.S. is $1,348, but the cost varies greatly depending on your car and your own characteristics. 

Minimum coverage, which averages $545, only includes liability, so if you are pinching your pennies, it might seem that comprehensive isn’t worth it. But you could change your mind following a big-ticket accident that causes thousands of dollars of damage to your car.

Your best bet? Practice safe driving techniques and be aware of the risks that animals cause, so that you can avoid having an animal-related accident in the first place. 

The Bottom Line 

Now, more than ever, as people turn to cars over planes for long-distance pandemic travel, it’s important to know what to do if you hit an animal while driving. Whether it’s a large wild animal or someone’s beloved pet pooch, it’s never a pleasant experience and can be heartbreaking. That and the fact that it can be both dangerous to you and damaging to your car mean that it’s worth considering your actions well before the accident happens. 

About the Authors

Mary Van Keuren

Mary Van Keuren Contributor

Mary Van Keuren has been covering auto and home insurance for Reviews.com for nearly five years, and has published numerous reviews of state-specific insurance trends and how to find the best insurance deals for your money. She earned B.S. and M.A. degrees from Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y. and has been writing professionally, both in print and online, for 30+ years.