Researchers at the University of Maine are developing computerized street lights designed to help drivers avoid hitting moose.

The new lights are being developed this month at UMaine in response to the deadly problem that persists in remote parts of the state.

The computerized street lights are expected to help drivers spot and avoid moose on dark roadways. The lights are the first of their kind and one of two new methods of flagging moose crossings that are expected to be used more by the Maine Department of Transportation.

The solar-powered lights would be installed in remote areas, turning on when vehicles approach and turning off after they pass, saving power for only when motorists need to see the road – and any moose on the side of it.

“It is a lot less expensive to do it this way than to have the lights on all the time,” said Ted Talbot, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation.

On Saturday, Maine’s annual Moose lottery will allocate 4,110 hunting permits — the most in 30 years — to help cull the herd in the fall. Hunters have a success rate of 80 to 90 percent.

Still, Maine has the largest moose population in the continental United States, an estimated 76,000 statewide.

On average, more than 550 moose-automobile crashes have been reported annually in Maine in the last decade. Moose crashes caused two deaths last year and 22 in the last decade.

Transportation officials are working to cut the number of crashes, and plan to use new technology in the next year to address the problem in the forested areas where moose thrive.

“We are trying different methods and will continue to try different methods,” said Talbot. “We also put in reflective lights last year as part of road work being done. We need a couple more seasons to really judge if that is effective.”

While Talbot said moose crashes have declined across Maine in the past decade because of increased education and signage — from more than 600 to fewer than 500 a year — state officials estimate that there are more moose in Maine than they previously believed.

Three years ago, they estimated there were 31,000. State biologists now estimate Maine’s moose population at far more than double that estimate, or 76,000, said Doug Rafferty with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

‘I NEVER SAW IT’

Daniel Dionne of Madawaska knows the feeling of fear and helplessness that comes with a head-on collision with a moose.

In October, near his home at the northern tip of Maine, Dionne was driving his 1998 GMC pickup truck 65 mph along a pitch-black stretch of road at night. Before he knew what was happening, an enormous bull moose and its antlers crashed through his windshield, stopping inches from Dionne’s face.

He suffered only scrapes on his face and neck, and considers himself lucky. Three of his friends have died in collisions with moose in Aroostook County.

“If I was in a car, (the moose) would have rolled over and crushed me, I guarantee it,” Dionne said. “I live in moose country. Over the years, I’ve always said to myself, ‘I don’t care when I see a moose, I will be able to take action. I’ll take precautions and be able to handle it.’ I always thought when people hit a moose it was because they were not attentive. But as it turns out, the one I hit, I never saw it. That’s how fast it happened.”

Moose are often on the move and they are known for stepping into roadways unexpectedly.

They move in the spring, after the birthing season; they jump into roadways to escape insects in the woods in the summer; and they move during the mating season in the fall.

Given the number of traffic accidents caused by moose each year across Maine, state engineers have sought new ways to alert motorists to the large mammals, which can weigh as much as 1,200 pounds.

THE NEWEST TECHNOLOGY

This month, production will begin at UMaine on the prototype for a new street light to help motorists see moose on dark roads, Talbot said.

Researchers in UMaine’s electrical engineering department plan to develop lights that will illuminate common moose-crash locations on rural roads where there are no street lights.

A proposal to line a 1.5-mile stretch of Route 161 in Madawaska Lake Township with the new lights is projected to cost $120,000 to $140,000, Talbot said.

The solar-powered lights would be tripped by a vehicle’s movement, and illuminate the roadway only when drivers need it, said Andrew Sheaff, a lecturer at UMaine who is overseeing the project. The lights would remain off when there is no traffic, which in Aroostook County is much of the time.

Students in the university’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in Orono have begun to build the prototype, Sheaff said.

“It requires quite a bit of hardware to get the lights to turn on. It gets complicated to get that behavior right,” Sheaff said.

The electrical and computer parts for the lights came in this week, Sheaff said, and the students will build the prototype through the summer. Ideally, he said, the transportation department will test the lights this fall, during the mating season for moose.

“The best case is, the lights will go in this October. But the students have to build it on their own time in the summer,” Sheaff said.

A simpler device was installed by the transportation department in the past two years, and it appears to be working.

On two mile-long stretches of road that are common moose-crash areas in Aroostook County, the department installed reflective markers about 10 to 20 feet apart, Talbot said.

The stretches are on Caribou Road between Caribou and Van Buren, and on the road between Van Buren and Grand Isle. The reflective markers cost as much as $22,000 for a one-mile section, Talbot said.

While Talbot said it’s too soon to tell whether there has been a significant change in the frequency of moose collisions in those areas, local residents already like the results.

POSITIVE FEEDBACK

Yves Lizotte, Madawaska’s public works director, said the reflective strips are working. He said they do the one thing drivers in rural Maine need: indicate when large animals are at the roadside.

Because a moose’s eyes don’t reflect like those of a whitetail deer, it can be impossible to see a moose on a dark road at night.

“Now, you can see in the reflective strips up ahead, and if there is a shadow on the side of the road, you know why,” Lizotte said.

Dionne, the Madawaska resident, regularly drives the stretch of road in Grand Isle. He said the reflectors are exactly what northern Maine needs.

Because they are set up every 20 feet over the stretch of road, he said, a moose’s presence is obvious when the pattern in the reflectors is broken.

“You see a dead zone,” he said. “You see a reflector missing. To me, it’s effective and cheap technology.” 

Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@mainetoday.com

Twitter: Flemingpph