Deer look pretty when they’re far away, but if they get up close and personal with your car, the results can be catastrophic. Some states, such as Colorado and Wyoming, are striving to reduce wildlife-vehicle crashes, which can result in totaled cars and human or animal deaths.
As the number of deer-car collisions climbed nearly 8 percent from July 2011 to June 2012 – going to estimated 1.2 million – some states are investing in building structures over and under roadways, and installing wildlife crossing signs and barrier fencing to keep animals and humans safe.
Reducing the number of wildlife-vehicle collision has become more of a focus in recent years, says Jon Beckmann, a Montana-based conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society.
The consequence of a crash with a deer or other large wildlife, such as moose and elk, ranges from fender damage to the vehicle being totaled. The average amount of damage to vehicles per accident has increased 4.5 percent to $3,305, according to a State Farm study released in October 2012 that looked at collision claims for the last half of 2011 and first half of 2012.
When should drivers beware?
The most common month for deer-vehicle collisions is November, followed by October and December. Those three months come during breeding season, when deer are more active and travel near roadways more frequently.
West Virginia experienced the most deer-car collisions in 2011-2012, with an estimated 30,203 collisions. State Farm’s study looked at claims data and collisions involving elk, moose and other large wildlife.
Motorcyclists are particularly at risk – motorcycles were involved in four of the five fatal deer-vehicle crashes in Wisconsin in 2011, according to the Wisconsin Bureau of Transportation Safety.
“Although real serious injury and death are really rare in these types of accidents, they do occur, and there’s no way to put a price on that,” says Dick Luedke, a spokesman for State Farm.
Here are the three key steps being taken to reduce deer-vehicle collisions in various states.
1. Signs notifying motorists of deer crossings
The common effort among states is placing signs in popular deer crossing areas to warn motorists.
“The data is pretty consistent for (Wisconsin) as far as where the crashes are occurring,” says Sandra Huxtable, state patrol major with the Wisconsin Bureau of Transportation Safety. She says the signs are strategically placed at common deer-crossing points; however, drivers should be aware that deer may cross roads in places lacking signs.
Some states use traditional yellow deer crossing signs. Officials with the Washington State Department of Transportation say flashing and electronic signs – with messages that are updated regularly – can be more successful than traditional signs in cutting down on deer or elk collisions with cars.
Luedke warns that the credibility of deer crossing signs drops as the number of signs goes up. “You do really only want to put them in areas where deer are more likely to be around,” he says. If drivers see too many of them, he says, “they’ll start to ignore them.”
2. Special overpasses, underpasses guide wildlife across roadways
Eight highway overpasses and underpasses along a 13-mile stretch of U.S. Route 191, a popular migration path for thousands of pronghorn (a hoofed animal related to antelopes and goats), opened in October 2012 in Trapper’s Point, Wyo. The corridor is the country’s first and only federally designated migration corridor.
Deer tend to use the underpasses while pronghorn, which prefer wide expanses, use the overpasses.
The structures, which cost $10 million, were built to provide safe passage to the animals. Native vegetation and berms (raised mounds of dirt) make the overpasses and underpasses look like their habitats, so the animals can’t see vehicles and aren’t tempted to jump onto the roadways.
Accidents on U.S. 191 (specific numbers weren’t available) contributed to Wyoming’s estimated 3,716 deer collisions between July 2011 and June 2012, according to State Farm data.
Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Washington and Arizona also have created special pathways and structures for wildlife to prevent them from scampering onto highways.
3. Fences prevent animals from colliding with vehicle
Across highways in states such as Washington, Minnesota and Colorado, 8-foot-high fencing is installed at various spots to provide a barrier between wildlife and cars and to prevent animals from darting onto highways.
Although it’s an effective method of reducing the risk of wildlife-vehicle collisions, it is can cost millions of dollars to install and maintain fences, so they’re not placed along all roadways, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation. Fences have been installed along Interstate 90 east of Cle Elum, Wash., for example.
Wyoming’s overpasses have 8-foot-high barrier fences to guide the animals to the crossing points and keep them from crossing onto the roadway.
In Utah, two new bridges on Interstate 80 installed by the Utah Department of Transportation included pathways along the Weber River for wildlife. Wildlife fencing was added near the bridges. These measures, as well as the newly installed wildlife path on U.S. Route 91, have helped about 300 deer cross safely so far in 2012, according to a Utah State University study.
In Canada’s Banff National Park, wildlife fencing has reduced collisions with elk and deer by 96 percent since 1996.
Eight tips for avoiding colliding with a deer
- Slow down in early morning and evening hours (particularly 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.), when deer are most active.
- If you see a deer by the side of the road, slow down, flash your headlights and blow your horn with one long blast to scare the deer out of the road. Then look for others; deer rarely run alone.
- Brake firmly when a deer ventures in or near your path. Never swerve, which can cause you to lose control and hit another car or a tree.
- Wear a seat belt. The most severe injuries usually are caused by not buckling up.
- Pay attention to caution signs or deer crossing signs.
- Remember where you have spotted deer in the past to avoid being surprised.
- When possible, use high-beam headlamps at night to illuminate areas where deer might enter roadways.
- Don’t rely on car-mounted deer whistles, which have not been proven to scare away the animals.
Sources for tips: Illinois Department of Transportation, Minnesota Department of Transportation, State Farm, Wisconsin Bureau of Transportation Safety