Police departments and insurance agencies routinely advise motorists to never swerve to avoid dogs, deer or other animals darting onto roads and highways. Sudden high-speed moves can send vehicles spinning or cause them to strike a tree, guardrail or other cars and trucks. Motorists fare better by bracing, braking, holding straight and letting the animal dictate its fate.
Slowly moving snakes and turtles, however, seldom trigger panicky reactions. In fact, they sometimes do the opposite. Whether the reptiles are straddling centerlines, sunning themselves on paved shoulders, or laying eggs in soft roadside sand and gravel, they provoke some drivers to attack, not evade.
Several studies and experiments over the past three decades found that roughly 3% of motorists intentionally steer off course to Goodyear reptiles on roadways.
Cynics and tax watchdogs, meanwhile, question why universities and highway departments spend time and money studying such matters. Answer: Certain reptiles are slow to reproduce, and their species can decline regionally in high-traffic areas because they’re vulnerable to roadkills. By working with road engineers to plan projects, scientists use roadkill research to calculate death rates for reptiles. If a route or highway design would likely harm vulnerable critters, the engineers might use barriers, culverts and innovative designs to reduce or redirect reptiles and other wildlife crossing the road.
Studies of intentional reptile roadkills trace to at least 1987 in Kansas, where three Butler County Community College researchers monitored how drivers reacted to a black hose and a black rubber snake placed on the road’s yellow median stripe. Drivers quickly went after the rubber snake, and hit it more often than they did the hose. When researchers replaced the black rubber snake with a bright blue “snake,” drivers hit it just as eagerly.
The tests also found that pickup drivers were more likely than other drivers to hit the rubber snakes. Further, when surveying 364 college students about hitting animals on roads, the researchers learned that both males and females would deliberately hit snakes more often than other animals.
A 1996 study of roadkills in southern Ontario, Canada, found many dead reptiles on less-used portions of roads that tires typically don’t travel. The researchers speculated that motorists were intentionally veering into snakes and turtles. Some of those researchers teamed up for a follow-up study in 2007 on a causeway road that separates a large wildlife area from a big bay off Lake Erie.
The researchers placed plastic replicas of a snapping turtle and Eastern fox snake between the road’s painted, dashed centerlines. They also taped a disposable cup on the centerline to assess drivers’ responses to inanimate objects. And to assess accidental hits, they applied a line of white biodegradable grease along the centerline. They focused on vehicles traveling at least 260 yards from another vehicle so driving behaviors wouldn’t be influenced by other factors.
The researchers then recorded the reactions of 2,000 passing motorists, 80% of whom were male. Overall, 2.7% of drivers hit the fake reptiles, and male drivers were nearly four times more likely than females to hit them. And although males and females stopped to rescue fake turtles at similar rates—1.7% and 1.5%, respectively—only one of 17 snake rescuers was female. No one, however, stopped to retrieve the cup.
The study found drivers were 2.4 times more likely to hit the snake than the grease strip, and 1.9 times more likely to hit the snake than the cup. Drivers were also 1.7 times more likely to hit the turtle than the grease strip, and 1.5 times more likely to hit the turtle than the cup.
Mark Rober, an engineer and YouTube personality, produced a clever video of his 2012 roadkill experiment that produced results similar to the Ontario study. Rober placed rubber replicas of a turtle, snake and tarantula on a road’s paved shoulder, and a green leaf to assess accidental hits. Of 1,000 passing motorists, 60 (6%) hit at least one of the rubber animals, but none hit the leaf.
Drivers in Rober’s experiment hit the tarantula the most, 3.2%; and then the snake, 1.8%; and turtle, 1%. Of the drivers stopping to help the critters, 4% rescued the turtle and 1.7% rescued the snake. No one helped the tarantula. Rober also noted that those driving pickups or SUVs accounted for 89% of the “kills.” Cars accounted for the other 11%.
Another 2012 experiment put intentional reptile hits at 2.6%. While studying how best to help box turtles safely cross a busy road near Clemson University in South Carolina, student Nathan Weaver placed a rubber turtle in the middle of the road. Seven of 267 passing drivers steered their vehicles to run it over.
Why Such Hate?
Why do 3% of drivers have such ill will? The Ontario researchers note that many people fear snakes, which often “elicit a very rapid negative emotional response.” They also wrote that men tend to drive more aggressively than women, and therefore often intentionally hit reptiles. Further, local attitudes toward wildlife might play a role. Many residents said they disliked snapping turtles because they eat ducklings and other fish and wildlife people favor.
A Wisconsin woman tried to learn what motivated a drive-by mashing after an “out-of-state” pickup truck ahead of her swerved onto the gravel shoulder of Highway 27 near Hayward to crush a snapper laying eggs.
Wendy Coffman was so angered that she followed the pickup into town and confronted the driver when he pulled into a gas station. “I asked him why he killed a turtle that was just laying her eggs,” Coffman said. “He told me, ‘It’s just a turtle,’ and turned away. I said: ‘Really!? Just a turtle? How can you do that? We don’t treat turtles like that around here. They’re part of our environment. We look out for them.’ He just got back into his pickup and drove off. That turtle had no meaning to him.”
Mark Naniot, the director of Wild Instincts, said his team often works on two to three turtles daily from late May through early July, the region’s peak nesting period for turtles. He said the most they can usually do is make “external repairs” to the shell with epoxy and zip ties. He said snapping turtles tend to suffer the worst injuries, given their “leathery” shell, while box turtles and painted turtles have tougher, harder shells.
Like Coffman and others, Naniot doesn’t know what motivates the cruelty. “We see the bad parts of society,” he said. “We’ve been on the phone helping people handle a turtle on the road, and then another driver swerved over and killed it while we talked.”
Citing drivers for such offenses is usually difficult. Todd Schaller, Wisconsin’s chief conservation warden, simply said, “If we could prove intent, we could charge them with illegal take, or take of a protected species.”
Therefore, instead of seeking legal remedies, agencies usually try more practical solutions. Andrew Badje, a biologist with the Wisconsin DNR’s Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation, said reptile-proof fencing along roadsides can steer turtles into culverts or underpasses leading to the other side. In one project, students at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point documented nearly 70 turtles killed in 2015 on a highway cutting through a pond and wetlands complex. After the causeway was redesigned and rebuilt during a scheduled upgrade in 2016, the school’s “turtle wranglers” documented half as many dead turtles there.
Like several other such projects statewide, that one features an 18-inch high fence on both sides of the causeway, and the fence extends 6 inches into the ground. When turtles encounter the fence they turn right or left and keep walking. If they turned toward an opening, they’ll soon find their way into a spillway or culvert leading to the far side. If they turned the other way, they’ll eventually reach a turtle round-about. Turtles dislike backing up, so they follow the semi-circle around until they’re heading back the way they came.
Could even more reptiles be saved by posting road signs and “educating the public” about the reptiles’ ecological roles and importance? The Ontario researchers speculated that public-outreach efforts might boost rescues, but probably wouldn’t reduce overall deaths at turtle crossings. They wrote: “Public awareness campaigns will not likely influence decision-making by many drivers who intentionally hit reptiles.”
In other words, people who get their jollies steamrolling snakes and turtles likely lack a conscience that can be swayed by science and compassion. The late author Pat Conroy captured that indifference in his 1976 novel “The Great Santini.” The semi-autobiographic book’s main character, Lt. Col. Wilbur “Bull” Meecham, was a tough fighter pilot who liked running over turtles while driving late at night.
Conroy wrote: “Periodically, Bull would spot a turtle crossing the highway and with an imperceptible movement of his arm he would position the car expertly and snap the animal’s shell, which made a scant pop like the breaking of an egg. It kept him from getting bored on the trip; it kept him alert. He always did it when his wife and children were asleep.”
When Bull’s wife called him out, he claimed they were safety hazards. She responded: “Sure they are, darlin’. You’re always reading about car wrecks caused by marauding box turtles attacking defenseless Chevrolets.”
Undeterred, Bull said: “It’s my only sport when I’m traveling. My one hobby.”
If researchers are right, that perverse hobby is shared by about 3% of the nation’s drivers.