Spring: Time to think like a deer to avoid collisions

Spring: Time to think like a deer to avoid collisions
by Cindy Ross

My husband was cruising in his pick-up a few years back, when a trophy buck sprinted out of nowhere. With zero time to react, they collided, the handsome deer smashed to its death, the truck suffering costly damage. The hunters who were chasing it sprang from the woods as my husband was hefting the carcass into the back of his pick-up and declared,
"Hey! That's my deer!"
"Wrong," he replied, surveying the vehicle damage. "It's mine."
The only positive part- our freezer was filled with roadkill. But it was a high price to pay for meat, let alone the sad death of a magnificent creature.
A colossal number of deer are hit on our roadways every hunting season as the fall rutting season forces them to roam farther in search of mates and hunters push them on their drives. Spring is the next peak season for deer-vehicle collisions, the Pennsylvania Game Commission reports, and causalities are on the rise every year.
In 2007, the National Highway Safety Administration estimated that nationwide, 1.5 million deer-vehicle collisions occur annually, resulting in $1 billion in vehicle damage and the deaths of 150 motorists. Average cost of a claim is approximately $2,000 according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Pennsylvania leads the country with nearly 97,000 crashes each year, according to the State Farm Insurance Company. Maryland experienced approximately 26,000 deer collisions and Virginia 47,000 in 2006, but officials believe these figures are grossly underestimated. The problem is worsening as development spreads into rural areas and vehicle miles traveled increase.
Deer are not the only species killed, of course. In Pennsylvania, 250 to 300 black bear are struck annually. Untold numbers of smaller animals are killed.
The District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia have created a task force to reduce deer crashes. It is looking at fencing, sensors, reflectors, road design, roadside plantings, signage, and public education. Engineering changes have helped. For example, Virginia has seven wildlife underpasses on the Great Seneca Highway. Monitoring showed many animals use them and the Virginia Transportation Research Council concluded that if an underpass prevents only a minimal number of deer-vehicle collisions, the savings in property damage alone can outweigh the construction costs.
Individual drivers, also play an important part. We can "think like deer" and learn their habits. In spring, animals are moving over their entire range in search of food. Expect to see deer feeding along roadsides that are wide and grassy, for here the prolonged sunlight speeds the growth of tender shoots. Deer that feed along busy highways are accustomed to traffic and tend to stay back. But deer whose territory is along rural roads often behave skittishly.
Young deer are on the move as their mothers chase them away and prepare for the birth of new fawns. These yearlings often venture into unfamiliar territory. Now they are on their own and not "street smart."
Stay alert. Watch in your periphery. At dawn and dusk, anticipate that deer will be moving. This is the time when commuter traffic is heavy and roadway visibility is low. At night, look for glowing eyes off to the side.
Slow down as soon as you see deer. If one pops onto the road, expect more to follow. Slow to a stop, if safe. If a crash is unavoidable, brake hard, hold on to the steering wheel, and bring the vehicle to a controlled stop; do not "veer for deer."
A majority of the people killed in wildlife crashes were killed when their vehicle went off the road into a tree, another vehicle, or some other obstacle. Death could have been prevented in many cases. Wear seat belts and motorcycle helmets. States where motorcycle helmet laws are absent have a much higher death rate in animal-vehicle collisions
Keep your headlights clean and aligned. Consider headlight design when purchasing a new or used vehicle; some high beams cast light on to the sides of the road.
One thing that could help is better reporting of deer collisions, so problem areas could be identified, according to the Insurance Institute. But most game commissions have abandoned surveys.
The website www.deercrash.com notes, "Deer are simply heeding the biological imperative to go forth and multiply. With no natural predators, and the suburbs a year-round salad bar, they have slipped out of their ecological niche - and it's our fault, not theirs. The deer did not ask human beings to create the kind of predator-free suburban landscapes in which they now thrive... People, therefore, must own up to their place in a compromised food chain, and assume the responsibility for managing it well." And by driving carefully.

Cindy Ross lives in Pennsylvania and has written 6 books about the outdoors. This column is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.