Technology to save Bambi -- and people

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Published August 19, 2013

| FoxNews.com

When cars meet deer, the results can be disastrous. 

Unfortunately, most attempts to prevent deer and vehicle crashes -- ultrasonic deterrents, infrared warning systems -- have failed to eliminate the danger. Now a Canadian company believes it has a system that could save lives and money.

On a 1-mile stretch of a rural highway just across the border in Ontario, Canada, are signs warning of the increased danger of deer on the road. What's different is that alongside the signs are warning lights that are automatically triggered whenever a deer or moose approaches the side of the road. The lights are connected to a radar network that has been programmed to detect large animals and then track their movements, so the flashing lights stay on until the danger has wandered away.

“With a simple deer warning sign, you become complacent,” notes Blake Dickson, a vice president at Rotalec Inc., the company that designed the radar network. Particularly along a regular route, drivers tend to ignore the yellow signs because most of the time there are no animals around, he explains, so “this system warns you that something's happening right now, so it draws the attention of the driver.” The goal is to get drivers to slow down to a speed at which they can avoid the animals.

A previous system that was tested further north to detect moose had difficulty working in poor weather because it used infrared sensors, and it could not continually track the animals. The latest radar design works in rain, fog, and snow, says Dickson, and can follow the movements of deer and moose so that when an animal leaves the vicinity, the lights go off. It can also detect pedestrians, and it can distinguish between cars and other moving objects and deer to prevent false alarms.

Unfortunately, it's not programmed to see smaller animals like dogs and rabbits, so while it may save Bambi from injury, Thumper and friends aren't likely to be so lucky.

To witness the system in action, I drove up the stretch of Highway 138 north of Cornwall, Ontario, where the Rotalec design is being tested. The warning signs on this densely traveled route leading up to Ottawa were definitely noticeable from a driver's perspective, while the posts with radar sensors, which are about half the height of a regular telephone pole, were relatively unobtrusive. On my drive, no deer or moose appeared to trigger the lights.

It requires three radar-enabled stanchions to cover the roughly one and a quarter mile distance, costing a total of about $270,000 for the entire system, including solar panels, backup batteries and the network connection. Several municipalities are looking at possibly installing similar equipment in areas of Alberta, Newfoundland, and British Columbia, where deer and moose present a constant danger. At least one state in the Midwest is also looking at Rotalec's project.

Dickson says the equipment is also mobile, enabling communities to study particular neighborhoods and roads to pinpoint trouble spots where installing a permanent warning system would be most effective. It can also work in suburban areas where there's been an increase in the deer population over the past few years.

So far, during the first four months of the project in Ontario, there are have been no reported animal-car accidents. “We have seen deer in the area, and we have seen vehicle speeds drop on a regular basis” when the warning lights come on, says Dickson. The real test, however, will begin in the fall when deer mating season begins and drivers have to be even more alert to animal crossings.

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