The occupants of a hybrid Toyota Prius survived a sudden impact with an estimated 700-pound bear early Tuesday morning south of the Stevenot Bridge, sending the yet-to-be located and likely injured bear lumbering into the wooded brush surrounding New Melones Reservoir.
Damian Riley, 42, saw the bear as he descended downhill and northbound on Highway 49 toward the Tuolumne/Calaveras county line at 5:55 a.m., said California Highway Patrol - Sonora Area Public Information Officer Steve Machado.
“He said, ‘two seconds, then it happened,’” Machado said.
The black 2017 Toyota Prius was traveling approximately 55 to 60 miles per hour with 33-year-old Andrea Riley in the passenger seat.
“The driver indicated that when the impact occurred, it sounded like an explosion because of the airbag deployment,” Machado said. “He didn't know at the time what he thought he hit. He thought he had hit another vehicle but then recognized what it was.”
The bear was gone, Machado said, and still has not been found.
Damian Riley recalled to the CHP that the bear entered into Highway 49 from the east, directly into the path of the Prius.
It appeared to be headed in a northwest direction, toward the reservoir.
Damian Riley told the CHP he did not know where the bear went after the collision, Machado said, but investigators speculated it disappeared into the dense trees and foliage beside the road.
The collision was determined to have occurred approximately 200 feet south of Melones Court, the last intersecting road to Highway 49 before the bridge.
The Rileys were treated for minor injuries by medical personnel at the scene and were not transported to a hospital.
Machado said the damage to the vehicle was consistent with a bear collision.
“Looking at a photo like this you would expect to see more extreme injuries,” Machado said.
Peter Tira, a spokesperson for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said animal collisions peak at this time of year as creatures began their migrations to winter habitats.
Tira pointed to data collected by the CHP — 4,368 collisions with animals on state, county and local roadways throughout California between 2017 and 2018 resulting in 15 deaths and 810 injuries.
“It's a big issue this time of year and that's an unfortunate example of that,” Tira said. “Wildlife, bears, deer, elk, mountain lions, they're on the move this time of year.”
On Thanksgiving Day in 2017, Copperopolis residents Sarah Rae Rohde, 27, and Ariana Harris, 1, were killed when Rohde’s 2002 Subaru Impreza crashed into a bear on Highway 4 near Holiday Mine Road near Murphys.
The CHP reminded the public in a press release to contact authorities or California Fish and Wildlife if the injured bear is seen and not to approach it.