Snapping turtles are large and ferocious looking creatures that do not like to be handled, or even approached by humans. Vulnerable on land, they appear to be aggressive and fierce. In reality, they are not interested in attacking anyone, or anything, and they are merely acting defensively when they strike and try to bite. Their pointed beaks are strong enough to inflict a wound and cause pain, although they cannot actually sever a finger or a limb as common folklore suggests.
This is a COMMON snapping turtle, not an alligator snapper, which is an important distinction. The common snapping turtle reaches 18kg (40 lbs) and has a strong jaw. The alligator snapping turtle reaches up to 45kg (100lbs) and has a jaw strength many times greater. The alligator snapping turtle is definitely capable of taking off a finger, or worse.
Common snapping turtles are not dangerous to humans. They live in almost all lakes and rivers in North America, although people rarely see them in the water. They are often encountered when they are crossing the road in the spring or the fall. This is when they are likely on the move to find a spot to lay eggs, or when males are in search of better feeding or breeding grounds.
Slow-moving, the turtles are frequently killed by cars when they cross the roads and highways. Well-meaning motorists will stop to help these creatures, and it is not difficult to do so safely. An important thing is to determine which way the turtle was headed. This will help prevent it from simply wandering back into danger after it is moved of the road. It is also important to lift them in a way that prevents injury to both the human and to the turtle.
Heavy turtles should never be lifted by the tail. Their weight is enough to cause a dislocation in the spine, leading to serious problems for the turtle. Their bite is strong enough that people also need to avoid putting their hands within reach of the turtle's jaws. With a quick strike, their long neck can extend almost half the length of the turtle's body. They can reach up and behind their shells with lightning speed. Hands need to be kept behind the shell midline at all times.
Gripping the tail to keep the turtle from turning is safe, but it is best to grab the shell near the rear legs firmly. A hand can be placed under the plastron (lower shell in the belly area) and the weight of the turtle can be supported in this way. Another hand on top of the shell will prevent the turtle from lunging and flipping over.
The turtle can then be moved and placed in the grass to continue on its way. Hand washing is always recommended after handling snapping turtles as they can carry bacteria. It is also possible to let the turtle grab onto a stick and then it can be slowly dragged to safety. And of course, traffic safety needs to be the most important consideration of all!