Stephen Vrla, Michigan State University (Lansing, MI): The Social Aspects of Animal-Vehicle Collisions: A Call for Further Research
Over the past few decades, environmental scientists have become increasingly concerned about the impacts of roads on non-human animals and the environment. These impacts range from habitat fragmentation to noise pollution, but one of the most notable of them is animal-vehicle collisions, or AVCs. Every year, millions of AVCs occur in the United States alone, causing the deaths of countless animals. In addition to these deaths, AVCs can damage vehicles and injure or kill their occupants. In Michigan, for example, thousands of deer-vehicle collisions occur every year, resulting not only in thousands of deer deaths but also in millions of dollars in vehicle damages and hundreds of human injuries or deaths. Moreover, AVCs can harm species and ecosystems. In Florida, for instance, AVCs are one of the leading causes of morality of the endangered Florida panther.
In response to AVCs, natural scientists have developed a substantial body of literature on their causes and effects and participated in numerous measures to mitigate them. These mitigation measures have included relatively inexpensive efforts to change driver behavior like education programs and warning signs, but they have more prominently focused on more expensive attempts to change animal behavior like roadside fencing, overpasses, and underpasses. While these more expensive measures have been implemented in various contexts, such as the infamous Toad Tunnel in Davis, California, they have most often been built in locations that have had high rates of AVCs involving large animals like deer or endangered species like the Florida panther. As these tendencies suggest, AVCs are not only an environmental issue, but also a social issue: they both affect and are affected by humans economically, politically, ethically, and in other ways.
Given the social significance of AVCs, one may expect social scientists, like natural scientists, to have developed a similarly substantial body of literature on their causes and effects and to have participated in comparably numerous measures to mitigate them; so far, however, we have not. In this presentation, I will address this disparity in three ways. First, I will review the small amount of social scientific research on AVCs that does exist. This literature offers theoretical insights on AVCs ranging from the micro-level of individuals’ desensitization to seeing “road-kill” to the macro-level of the structural violence of “road-killing.” Nonetheless, it lacks empirical verification of these insights. Second, I will present the results of a survey of Americans’ exposure to “road-kill” and their attitudes toward “road-killing.” Although the survey has several limitations, it indicates that exposure to “road-kill” may desensitize people to “road-killing,” which could have important implications on efforts
to change driver behavior and attempts to fund fencing, underpass, and overpass construction. Third, I will argue that further social scientific research on AVCs has the potential to answer some of the theoretical questions the existing literature has raised about them; raise and answer new theoretical and practical questions about AVCs; and help identify solutions to the sustainability issues raised by AVCs and the other impacts of roads on non-human animals and the environment.
Keywords: animal-vehicle collisions, environmental impacts of roads, mitigation, social sustainability