While driving back from a trip back home this week, I encountered a situation that many outdoorsmen run into when heading out to or coming back from the lake, the deer blind or any other activity which requires an early start or a late return.
Despite seeing the mature doe some 100 feet ahead of me, and noting that she was ambling through the left ditch and onto the pavement of the two lane road, I was unable to avoid striking her. Thankfully, I remembered some important facts about driving in deer country that I had put together for a recent safety meeting at work. My right fog light was damaged, and my license plate was bent pretty badly, but other than that, I avoided serious vehicle damage, and more importantly, bodily harm. It is my hope the following information will help others survive such encounters.
In recent years, deer-vehicle collisions (DVCs) have resulted in over 100 motorist deaths annually. Thousands more result in damage to vehicles and minor to moderate injury each year, costing vehicle owners and insurance companies millions of dollars annually. The escalating numbers of deer and resulting DVCs are due in part to successive mild winters in most parts of the Midwest, the rapid expansion of agricultural lands, and the increased road access to traditional deer habitat. When driving through areas where deer live, it is important to take precautions to avoid a collision and prevent injury and property damage.
Deer are on the move year-round, but their travels peak in spring, summer and fall. You will encounter deer feeding in roadside ditches in spring, looking for freshly sprouted plants like forbs and grasses to help them recover from the long winter. Deer will also feed throughout the summer and into fall to prepare for mating and to build up reserves for the oncoming cold seasons. Be alert at these times of year for increased deer activity.
Deer are also most active in low-light hours. Morning and evening, while traveling to and from work, is when many people encounter deer. Night travel also frequently puts motorists in contact with deer, and with the reduced visibility, deer are harder to see. Pay specific attention to the roadsides when driving through agricultural and forested areas; don't rely on traditional deer crossing signs, as deer are found nearly everywhere. Deer will make split-second decisions to cross the road, and you must be able to react. In constricted areas like two-lane forest roads, you should be on the lookout for deer to avoid a DVC.
If you see one deer cross the road, expect others to be right behind it. Deer usually travel in small groups throughout most of the year. It is a good idea to use your high-beam headlights when possible to see deer in advance as you travel at night. Drive fully awake and alert, free from alcohol or medications, which cause drowsiness. Avoid distractions such as cell phones - keep your focus on the road and the ditches alongside it. Drive slower than the speed limit when you know deer are present and adjust for fog, rain or snow.
Seeing the doe that I struck and her intended direction of travel allowed me to slow down from 55 mph to under 15. I could not swerve into the oncoming lane to avoid the deer, as a car was approaching from that direction. The steep forested bank of the right ditch did not allow me to veer away much either. I only had one option. I honked the horn and continued to brake. The deer did not change its mind.
When a DVC is unavoidable, do not swerve wildly away from the deer! Slow down as rapidly as possible by applying pressure to the brakes, taking into account traffic behind you. In most cases, it is better to hit the deer and damage your vehicle than it is to swerve and leave the road or collide with traffic in the oncoming lane. Many fatalities and serious injuries resulting from DVCs happen when cars leave the road and roll over, or strike trees and other objects after the driver swerved and lost control. Avoid injury by being a conservative, defensive driver armed with this information.
In the end, the struggle for nature to adjust to mankind and our inability to predict what goes on in a deer's brain - just like during the hunt - means taking the proper precautions to avoid a dangerous situation the best thing that we can do when traveling...in our outdoors.