LOS ANGELES — Do you brake for cats, dogs, squirrels, skunks and possums? How about horses, cows, elk, moose, or deer?
Fight the urge to swerve as you brake if you don't have time to check traffic first, said Julie Startup, a Washington State trooper and spokeswoman in the agency's Seattle and Bellevue area.
"If you are able to make a safe lane change, by all means do it," said California Highway Patrol Officer Tamara McCormack, a spokeswoman in the Los Angeles office. But swerving without looking could result in an accident.
The size of the animal matters. If it's shorter than your car's hood and you don't have time to check other lanes, go through it, Startup said. If the animal is taller than the hood, avoid it if you can, knowing it still might be better to hit the animal.
"These crashes happen so fast, often times drivers don't have the option of making a decision about what to do," said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, "but the best thing, unfortunately, in most cases is to hit the animal and try to avoid swerving or doing something that could cause you to lose control and hit somebody else or an object or go off the road and roll over."
Most human injuries from animal collisions occur not when animals are hit but by the crash that follows. And most fatalities could be prevented by using seatbelts in cars and helmets on motorcycles, Rader said.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recorded 173 fatal crashes and 12,000 injury crashes involving animals in 2009, the latest year statistics are available, said spokesman Jose Alberto Ucles.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates there are more than 1.5 million crashes involving deer each year, resulting in more than $1 billion in vehicle damage annually.
Very few dogs, cats or other small animals are included in national studies about animal strikes because they are not reported to police or insurance companies, Rader said. But using data from several agencies, including NHTSA, the institute did a comprehensive study in 2004 that found 77 percent of reported animal crashes involved deer, 10 percent involved cattle, 6 percent horses and 6 percent dogs. "We even had one case that was a bear," he said.
If your own dog gets out of the car or house, "do anything you can to keep it from moving in the direction of traffic," said Cheryl Conway, a spokeswoman for the Aurora Animal Shelter in Colorado.
"Do not chase it," she warned. "Try calling and running in the opposite direction, like you are playing."
One of Conway's three Labrador retrievers is Bonny Kelani, who was 7 months old when someone threw her off a freeway overpass in Aurora.
Foster families cared for her through thousands of dollars in surgeries and weeks in rehab. Conway's family was Bonny Kelani's fourth foster stop in July. They officially adopted her in August.
Bonny Kelani is still afraid of traffic, Conway said. The first time Conway tried to take her for a walk next to a street "she panicked. Like a colt on a rope, she reared back and almost flipped over." The family has tried sitting with her on the porch and in the yard but when she gets close to the road, she still tries to get away.
Bonny Kelani owes her life to the good Samaritan who took her to the hospital, but experts recommend letting authorities handle animals hurt in crashes. "If they are injured, they will lash out and bite anything without realizing what they are doing," Conway said.
If you hit an animal and your car will make it, get off the road and call 911. And if you do try to help a dog or cat, cover it first with a blanket or towel so it can't hurt you.
Based on claims, State Farm Insurance estimated there were 1.09 million crashes between deer and vehicles in the United States between July 1, 2010, and June 20, 2011, said company spokesman Eddie C. Martinez in Los Angeles. That is 7 percent lower than a year earlier and down 9 percent from three years earlier, he said.
Pennsylvania had the most deer-vehicle crashes, with 101,299, Martinez said, followed by Michigan with 78,304. But he said the chances of a driver hitting a deer in the next 12 months are greatest in West Virginia, at one in 54. That's better than a year ago, when chances were one in 42, he said.
Martinez said the average cost of a crash with a deer is $3,171, up 2.2 percent from a year earlier.
Deer are most active between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m., and during mating and migration season, typically fall and winter. Top months for deer-vehicle collisions are November, October and December, according to research from State Farm.
Watch for deer crossing signs, use your high beams whenever possible at night, don't rely on car-mounted deer whistles and remember that deer usually travel in herds, he said.