Editorial: Doppler radar to alert drivers of wildlife is idea worth watching

The forecast for animal and driver safety could improve if a promising experiment using a meteorologist’s tool is successful.

As part of a pilot project, Doppler radar is being strategically deployed along U.S. 95 in North Idaho to spot animals approaching the highway. Detection then trips flashing lights on roadside signs to alert drivers to slow down.

Similar experiments in Colorado and Arizona have reduced collisions significantly.

Most of the attention on wildlife crossing has been centered on building overpasses or underpasses, which have been successful in places like Banff, Alberta, and along U.S. Highway 93 in Western Montana. Two dozen crossings are being planned along Interstate 90, east of Snoqualmie Pass.

Crossings require extensive design, engineering and construction, and they need miles of fencing to funnel animals to safe passage. Some overpasses cost as much as $2 million. The new U.S. Highway 95 underpass near Silverwood Theme Park cost about $1 million. Two underpasses near the Canadian border cost $500,000 each.

States simply don’t have the money to place structures everywhere they’re needed, and as recent legislative sessions in Olympia and Boise have demonstrated, transportation funding isn’t getting any easier to come by.

Some species of wildlife learn to use the crossings right away. Others, such as bears, can take years to adjust. The Doppler experiment turns the equation around, by training drivers to look for the flashing lights, tap the brakes and remain vigilant. It shows particular promise around dusk and into the evening, when visibility is poor, and in tricky highway sections where animals seemingly bolt out of nowhere.

The technology can filter out vehicles, and it won’t activate for animals smaller than coyotes. Thus far, there have been few false alarms. The system is mobile, so it can follow seasonal migrations of animals, rather than be fixed in one place.

The cost is generally tens of thousands of dollars – about one wrecked vehicle – rather than millions.

The system was recently tested for more than three months south of Bonners Ferry, and no collisions occurred. This is an area that experienced more than 320 collisions – mostly with deer and moose – between 2000 and 2010. Two people were killed.

Animal collisions represent significant danger and costs. In 2011, between Coeur d’Alene and the Canadian border, about 900 animals were struck. Nearly 5,000 were struck statewide. Washington has about twice as many collisions because it has many more vehicles.

In the Inland Northwest, wrecks usually involve white-tailed deer, a species that poses dangers on highways north of Spokane, according to the Washington Department of Transportation website.

Washington officials should keep an eye on the Doppler radar experiment because it could allow for safer passage on this side of the border, too.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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