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CDOT is looking for a great idea to keep cars from crashing into wildlife

Last year’s challenge to reduce deaths of cyclists and pedestrians stalled on contracts, but is moving forward

An overpass over Colorado 9 has successfully routed moose, deer and other wildlife over roads instead of on them. That helped cut down on traffic incidences with wildlife by 90 percent, according to Colorado Department of Transportation. The bridge was part of a $40 million project. (J. Richert, Provided to The Colorado Sun via Blue River Valley Ranch and CDOT)
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If you’ve got a great idea on how to stop a deer from leaping into headlights, you just may help Colorado solve one of its worst rural-traffic nightmares: collisions with wildlife.

The state’s Department of Transportation is challenging the public to come up with ideas that use technology to address this issue. According to the agency, rural routes nationwide carry less than half the traffic but account for most of the fatal crashes.

“On Interstate 25 south, from Castle Rock to Monument, we have 50 wildlife hits a year,” Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Amy Ford said. “In Colorado, we obviously have traditional approaches that we use for wildlife safety. But how can we harness technology?”

The RoadX Safety Challenge, should you accept it, is to come up with a technology-based idea that could be developed and used to minimize harm to wildlife and human drivers. The agency is offering $15,000 in cash prizes plus additional financial incentives to continue developing the idea into reality.

Colorado 9 between Breckenrdige and Frisco in Summit County. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

It’s a change from last year’s competition, in which about $275,000 was awarded to eight winners of the RoadX Bicycle and Pedestrian Challenge. Five winners took home $10,000 each, and that was the end of their participation.

Another three ideas received $75,000 each and were expected to move forward to build a working technology over eight months. Those winners included the Liberty Bell, a smart bicycle bell that collects data; Big Foot, an LED-lit bike path; and ColoRoadie, specially engineered solar panels to light up driving surfaces.  

However, those projects have been in limbo due to contracting issues, Ford said. The contracts, however, are now finalized and the three teams are expected to move to the next phase — one that grants the winner $150,000.

“That was a lesson for us as we cycle back for this,” Ford said. “We’re going to work with them on the idea and the implementation strategies and incentivize implementation on top of that. If you’re a winner and there’s a request to implement your idea into a project, we’ll incentivize that. That moves the process forward.”

In other words, instead of just handing the cash over, recipients could qualify for an additional $5,000 for each new stage in the development. There is a cap of 20 rewards. More details will be posted about the competition at codot.gov/programs/roadx.

“Even self-driving cars are going to hit a deer,” Ford said. “As we move into this world of connected cars and vehicles, how do we consider the technology and harness it with interactions with wildlife? Think about it, if all the elk and deer are collared, can you use the collars to connect with the (wireless communication) systems?”

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates crashes with animals are “at least a billion-dollar problem in the U.S.,” said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the nonprofit organization. “Not only are a lot of vehicles damaged, but crashes sometimes turn deadly for the drivers involved.”

According to an analysis from insurer State Farm, drivers who hit a deer last year averaged $4,179 per claim nationally, up from $3,994 the prior year. The insurer also ranked a drivers chances of hitting a deer within a state and Colorado was a medium-risk state with a 1 in 253 chance of hitting a deer.

There are many non-tech ways to prevent crashes and fatalities, such as lower speed limits in areas where deer and wildlife are prevalent, he added. There are also typical safety measures, such as buckling seat belts or turning on a car’s high beams when there’s no oncoming traffic.   

Rader also offered a hint as to a technology that could help drivers see wildlife faster: “Our research also shows that many vehicles lack headlights that illuminate the road as well as they could at night, which can prevent drivers from seeing animals or other hazards soon enough to react.”

And this isn’t to say non-technology solutions are not helpful. CDOT’s construction of two wildlife overpasses and five underpasses to guide moose, elk and other critters across Colorado 9  between Kremmling and Silverthorne in 2016 resulted in a 90 percent reduction of animal carcasses on the road compared with the average of the prior five years.

But that was a $40 million investment that included fence guides. The average cost of just a wildlife underpass or overpass runs $1 million to $2 million, Ford said. The state just wants to reduce the number of crashes and fatalities.

“Low-tech ideas are OK, too,” she said. “We are looking for innovation.”

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