Why Do Animals Run Out in Front of Cars? (9 Animals That Do)

Why Do Animals Run Out in Front of Cars
Fact Checked and Reviewed by: Mark Rhodes, Ph.D. - Wildlife Biologist
Dr. Mark Rhodes holds an MS in Fisheries and Wildlife along with a Ph.D. in Wildlife Ecology. He helps maintain our editorial standards of accuracy and quality. You can read more about Dr. Rhodes here.

Most animals have strong survival instincts and they’ll do everything in their power to escape dangerous situations, so it can seem very counterintuitive when some animals run out in the middle of busy roads and highways in front of passing cars.

I’m sure most of us don’t want to see animals get hurt, but even good drivers can’t predict when an animal will suddenly jump in front of them, so often times the inevitable happens.

But why do animals run out in front of cars?

Animals like deer, cats and dogs, birds, raccoons, badgers, opossums, squirrels, and other rodents are known to run out in front of moving vehicles, perhaps because they don’t understand the concept of cars. Some animals may perceive cars as predators so they will freeze, or try to escape by running in the opposite direction they came from.

Let’s take a closer look at the possible reasons that animals end up running in front of cars, what animals are most likely to do so, and what can you do as a driver in such situations.

Why Do Animals Run Out in Front of Cars?

Animals are not always aware of cars or how to avoid cars when they’re crossing the road and that often can lead to accidents. For most animals, cars might be confusing. After all, cars don’t act like anything else they’d see in the natural world.

For certain animals, the reason why they were crossing the road could be an effort to avoid predators or to go after the prey they were chasing. Other animals that live in groups could try crossing the road to rejoin their herd, look for a mate, or to help their offspring cross.

These animals are often met with cars and the collision usually results in an accident for one of the two parties or both. Often, this may be because the startled animal becomes confused, especially if they are crossing during the night when the intense headlights can blind them, thus freezing them in one spot.

In fact, many animals freeze when they see a vehicle approaching, and by the time they decide that the best course of action is to run away, it’s too late.

In some cases, it may seem that the animal is jumping in front of the car when in reality it is trying to run away, or cross the road as fast as it can, but it is unable to reach its destination in time.

It’s important to remember that the crossing animal could’ve been injured, or lacking the reflexes required to escape a car. It’s also possible that some animals might try to protect their young ones by jumping in front of the perceived danger, in this case, the car.

While there are different reasons why an animal would run in front of a driving vehicle, fear is definitely an important factor. More so, the traffic noise and the blinding headlights approaching the poor animal may aggravate this fear and the animal ends up confused, not knowing which way to run.

What Animals Are Most Likely to Jump in Front of Cars?

Now that we know why some animals end up running in front of cars and causing serious accidents, let’s see what animals are most likely to do so.

Deer

Depending on where you live, the animals that end up causing a car crash will differ. For many European countries and America, deer is the most commonly hit large mammal.

It is estimated that 1.5 million deer/vehicle collisions occur on U.S. roadways per year, while for a much smaller country like the UK, it is estimated that annually the number of deer killed or injured on UK roads is likely to exceed 40,000 and may well be nearer 74,000.

It’s also more common for deer collisions to be reported because such accidents usually result in injury or they prove fatal for the driver or/and passengers of the vehicle, or at the least damage to the vehicle.

It might seem that deer are trying to jump in front of vehicles on purpose, but it’s important to consider other factors like their numbers in the wild, the geographical position of the roads, and the season.

Such accidents are more likely to happen in heavily deer-populated areas. If the roads are going through their natural habitat then it’s quite likely that the deer will try to cross them in search of food.

During mating, seasons deer are also more likely to travel because they are in search of a mate.

In other words, we are the real intruders and we are the ones appearing unexpectedly in their natural environment.

Let’s also not forget that cars are scary, especially to animals that don’t really understand what those vehicles are.

The traffic noise and the flashing lights, especially during the night are terrifying and can cause the animal to panic and make bad decisions because of their confusion.

While deer have excellent vision at night, the sudden bright lights of a moving vehicle may be enough to confuse them and affect their decision to move in the right direction.

Plus, it’s important to keep in mind that for the most part deer don’t have the best long-distance vision and they usually perceive things that are right in front of them, and by the time they actually notice the moving vehicle up ahead it’s usually too late.

Squirrels

Millions of squirrels die on the road because of cars, and for the most part, these little critters are simply crossing the road in search of food, and looking for shelter.

It can however come as a surprise since squirrels are quite agile animals, but while the tactic that makes them successful escape artists works on natural predators, it doesn’t really work on cars.

Squirrels are skittish and according to National Geographic, they “will dart back and forth to confound a predator.”

But if you replace that predator with a car National Geographic adds that “when trying to cross the street, squirrels alarmed at the sudden onset of a car will begin to dart back and forth in a lane, which can put them in a deadly path.”

This usually successful zig-zag approach also makes it hard for drivers to avoid hitting a squirrel.

As you can see in the video this squirrel is using this zig-zag movement nearby ongoing traffic and while the little fella is not crossing the street it would be in danger if it tried to.

Like in this 2021 news report, in an effort to avoid a darting squirrel a teenager swerved the car, lost control, and rammed into the side of the Samuel Lincoln Cottage.

Additionally, Nottingham Trent University stated that “researchers found that traffic had been responsible for between 20% and 65% of red squirrel recorded deaths in some populations, with studies also showing traffic being accountable for 42%, 43%, 48% and 51% of deaths.”

This shows that the survival instincts that this little animal, and in fact most animals on this list, has developed don’t really work against cars.

Dogs

While deer and other rodents are mostly associated with road accidents, house pets or stray animals like dogs also get injured or die because of collisions with vehicles.

There are millions of dogs that end up in accidents on the road in the U.S. and even more across the world. Specifically, in Spain, dogs are the main species involved in animal-vehicle collisions.

Those accidents don’t just happen because dogs want to cross the road, instead, they occur because dogs tend to chance after cars.

According to Hillspet, dogs enjoy running after various vehicles, like cars, motorcycles, buses, etc. because “it sparks that natural instinct in which a dog recognizes the vehicle as prey they must run after and capture.”

These accidents are even more common in countries and areas where there is a larger number of stray dogs. It may often seem like a dog is jumping in front of a car, but in reality, they are trying to catch the car, or whatever vehicle is driving by.

Cats

The cat is another common animal that can run in front of cars and cause an accident. Just like dogs, these are mostly stray cats, but even in suburban and rural areas where cats are allowed to go outside these sorts of collisions can happen.

According to the Canadian Veterinary Journal, “trauma was the most common cause of sudden and unexpected death: 27 of 31 (87.09%) of these cases were presumed to have been associated with a motor vehicle accident.”

Unlike dogs which are usually not preyed upon by wild predators, cats are both predator and prey, so they are more likely to be afraid of cars. But that doesn’t mean cats can avoid them altogether.

The noise from the traffic, the headlights, and simply the size of an approaching vehicle can easily scare a cat and in the midst of their confusion they might bolt in any direction possible to avoid the car, and that attempt mightn’t always be successful.

According to this 2004 Journal, half of the cats involved in a road accident were “aged between seven months and two years, with more males than females affected.”

So, age can play a role in how cautious or not a cat is, as well as the gender since male cats are known to roam around and travel long distances to find a mate, or to claim new territory.

Birds

The data on the number of birds that end up being killed by vehicles is truly staggering. When it comes to the U.S. the numbers are anywhere between 87 and 350 million birds killed annually.

According to a study published in 2020, “194 million birds and ~29 million mammals may be killed each year on European roads.”

There are multiple factors that affect these numbers like the population of birds in certain areas, the season, in some cases their size, and whether they search for food on roads.

Birds that hunt, like a few owl species, tend to fly low to the ground and can often get hit by a car. Mating season can also result in more bird roadkill.

Larger birds are usually slower so they can also end up flying in front of a car. That being said smaller birds are usually more likely to get hit by a car, simply because birds with larger brains like crows, Crows, “have shown a remarkable knack for navigating oncoming traffic.

Unfortunately, the number of birds that are being killed annually by cars is a sign that roads represent a threat to biodiversity and the road mortality of birds can affect their population long-term.

Rats

When it comes to cities, suburban and rural areas rats are one of those animals that end up getting run over by cars incredibly often and that may be because they usually eat other roadkill.

Let’s not forget that there are billions of rats on the planet, which means that the likelihood of meeting these critters on the road is highly likely.

While some of them can avoid getting hit by a car, like with most rodents and most animals the blinding headlights can disorient a rat and this can lead to poor reflexes and decisions.

Opossums

Opossums are another animal that will usually freeze at the sight of an approaching car which often results in a collision. Being nocturnal also means that their eyesight is not necessarily the best and the headlights can make things even worse.

Just like rats, opossums will often feed on roadkill, which is another reason why they are at a higher risk of getting hit by a car.

So, it may seem like an opossum has suddenly jumped in front of a car, but in reality, they were either crossing the road and froze from the approaching vehicle, or they detected another dead animal, or even live prey by the road and decided to go for it.

Badgers

Badgers are also frequent victims of road traffic accidents. Just 4 years ago the BBC reported that there were far more badger road fatalities in the UK when it came to mammals, specifically 905.

In 2020, the death of badgers by vehicle collisions in Ireland was reported at 1,990. These are just two fairly small countries, so it’s safe to assume that these numbers are much higher for American badgers living in the U.S.

Late spring and summer are the periods when the numbers seem to rise because there are more cubs that are at risk of getting hit by a car, and that’s also when badgers often travel further for food.

Just like with most animals, the badger doesn’t understand the concept of cars, so they don’t jump or run in front of moving vehicles on purpose. Instead, it’s the car that suddenly appears on the road and interrupts their journey, which usually has devastating consequences for one or both parties.

Raccoons

The raccoon is another animal that is likely to get hit by a car, and according to the data from Roadkill Reports raccoons, opossums, and skunks are more likely to get hit because they are smaller and slower animals.

Just like other small animals on our list, raccoons are usually hit by cars because they want to cross the road, and since they are nocturnal animals this usually happens at night.

The low visibility, as well as the sudden light from the approaching vehicle, are usually enough to blind and disorient raccoons as they are trying to cross the road.

What Animal Is Most Likely to Run in Front of a Car?

While the numbers of the animals listed above that end up injured or killed in car accidents are significant, there’s one specific group that outnumbers all of them and these are insects.

Despite the decline in insect populations, which may be influenced by human activity, it is believed that 133 billion insects are hit by cars every month.

While these numbers were calculated in 2007, they’re still relevant, because in 2015 another study suggested that billions of pollinating insects are being hit by vehicles each summer.

You might be confused as to why insects are mentioned here since they don’t necessarily jump in front of cars, but most animals don’t actively try to jump in front of cars either.

Deer, squirrels, birds, and all the animals mentioned above aren’t invading our habitat, instead, we are building roads and keep invading their habitat. In a sense, we are the ones that are running out in front of all these animals.

How To Avoid Hitting an Animal on the Road?

While it’s not always possible to avoid hitting an animal that tries to cross the road, there are things we can do as responsible drivers to avoid it as much as possible.

So, let’s take a look at some of the things we can do!

Watch for Wildlife Warning Signs

Depending on where you live you will usually see wildlife warning signs with various animals that reside in that area. Such signs are crucial and help reduce roadkill, but only if the driver is actually paying attention.

If you do see such a sign, then make sure you’re paying extra attention to the road ahead, and if you’re driving fast then it would be advisable to slow down.

While it’s usually best to avoid passing through areas that are heavily populated with deer, for example, especially during the night, it’s not always an option. So, in this case, make sure you are on the lookout for wildlife warning signs, and if you do then slow down and be vigilant.

Slow Down

Whether you’re driving during the day or night speeding is never safe, however, so make sure you’re not only driving carefully, but you’re also not driving fast.

Slowing down and keeping your headlights on can help you spot the possible animal, but also stop the car in time.

Use High Beams During the Night

If you have to drive during the night then you need to make sure your visibility is as clear as possible, and you can only do that by using high beams.

Using dimmed headlights during the night means that you can only see about 98.4 feet (30 meters) ahead of you, while with the high beams on you can see 327 feet (100 meters) on an unlit road.

This means that with high beams on you are more likely to spot an animal crossing the road or standing at the side of the road and you’ll have enough distance between you to stop in time.

Avoid Driving at Dawn or Dusk

While nighttime is not the best time to be driving, for many animals on our list dawn and dusk are the time of the day when they are actually more active.

So, if you can avoid driving at dawn or dusk, then you are more likely to avoid meeting an animal during your drive.

Drive Defensively

Relying on your quick reflexes is not the best way to avoid hitting an animal, and if you’re trying to predict their movements there’s still a chance you’re going to hit the said animal or another vehicle.

That’s why the best thing you can do is be aware of the animals that live in the area you’re about to drive through and slow down in areas where the animals are usually present.

Driving defensively will not only help you stop in case the animal decides to jump in front of your car, but it will also help avoid swerving in an effort to avoid the animal.

What to Do if an Animal Runs Out in Front of Your Car?

There are certain steps you can take to avoid hitting an animal on the road, like using high beams, slowing down, as well as being more cautious in areas where animals dwell, and keeping an eye out for wildlife warning signs.

If you do see an animal standing in the middle of the road as you approach, you need to make sure you are reducing your speed, and if the animal is not moving use your horn to make sure the animal knows you’re approaching, thus sending them on their way.

I also want to mention a certain bad habit that any driver should avoid and that’s tailgating. Keeping an adequate distance between the car behind you will help minimize the chances of getting into a car accident if you suddenly need to brake.

Warning the car behind you that you’re about to brake will also help the people driving behind you to slow down or stop in time.

It’s also important to mention that in some cases, spotting an animal might be more difficult and if you’re met with an animal that has suddenly jumped in front of your car swerving is usually not a good option.

Applying the brakes firmly and remaining in your lane is less risky than swerving because otherwise, you are more likely to lose control of your vehicle, and you might be met with cars from the opposite lane.

If you do end up colliding with an animal, try to remain as calm as possible. First, you’ll need to find a safe spot to stop and you’ll also need to turn on your hazard lights to warn other road users.

You will need to call local authorities, and inform them of the situation and ask for further advice.

Closing Thoughts

It’s easy to assume that animals that run in front of cars are not smart, or that they are to blame, but that’s not true. Animals don’t know what cars are, and while some animals can learn to perceive cars as something dangerous and to be avoided, for many animals it’s likely not a concept they can grasp.

For some animals passing cars are a predator they need to attack in order to fend for their nests or offspring, for others it’s a predator with blinding lights that may cause so much fear that the animal ends up startled and disoriented. There are also those animals that are simply trying to cross the road.

Whatever the reasons may be, in reality, cars, and to be more precise, humans are the ones that are running out or jumping in front of these poor animals that are only trying to go about their day.