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Roadway run-ins

10/8/2009

First, the good news: there are more deer roaming the country now than at any time in the nation's history. The bad news: a lot more of them are getting hit by cars these days, which doesn't make deer, drivers or insurance companies happy.

According to State Farm Insurance, the country's largest auto insurer, the number of collisions involving deer and vehicles keeps creeping up. Its latest findings were based on a two-year study period between July 1, 2007 and June 30, 2009, when an estimated 2.4 million deer-vehicle collisions occurred. That figure represented an increase of more than 18 percent over the previous study period.

On average, there was one collision every 26 seconds, though the vast majority of such accidents took place from November through January, when deer are either preoccupied with mating or just out looking for their next meal.

Pavlov's dogs would have nailed it down a long time ago: Cross a busy highway and chances are you're going to get nailed by something big, hard and moving fast. Deer still haven't figured it out. When it comes to cars and collisions, they're as hapless as rabbits in headlights or armadillos on a Southern road.

If you don't want to run the risk of hitting a deer with your truck or automobile, best stay out of West Virginia, where the odds of hitting a deer on the highway are 1 in 39. That figure is based on a formula that incorporates the number of vehicles on the road relative to the number of deer-vehicle collisions.

Hawaii is the place to go if you're tired of dodging deer; the chance of hitting one in the Aloha state are 1 in 9,931, according to State Farm. You're more likely to slam into a feral hog in Hawaii, or be swept from the highway by a lava flow from one of its active volcanoes. In the lower 48, Arizona is the safest. There, the chances are only 1 in 1,892.

That West Virginia is the leading state for deer-vehicle collisions shouldn't come as a big surprise. Except for the paved part, the whole state is a virtual deer park. An estimated 1 million whitetails inhabit the state, or one for every two people. Michigan drivers have the second best chance of being involved in deer-vehicle collisions. There, the odds of hitting a whitetail are 1 in 78.

Michigan also has the distinction of being second only to Pennsylvania in the number of deer-vehicle collisions. In 2008, 61,010 such mishaps were reported in the state, mainly in the heavily populated southern counties.

Pennsylvania ranked No. 1 with more than 105,000 collisions for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2008. The Keystone State also ranked third in the likelihood-for-deer-collision standings with a 1-in-94 rating, followed by Iowa and Montana (each at 1 in 104).

Too much of a good thing?

According to State Farm spokesman Dick Luedke, there are about 150 fatalities a year in the U.S. due to deer-vehicle collisions and about 10,000 drivers and/or passengers suffer injuries as a direct result. The average vehicle repair cost amounts to about $3,000.

In a sense, the general increase in the number of deer-vehicle collisions is a reflection of the success of deer management efforts in the country. It also raises a question that more citizens are asking these days in a country where there are between 25 and 30 million deer, and counting: How many deer are too many?

Deer hunting was once a major point of contention among hunters, wildlife managers and animal rights groups, with the rest of the population wavering from side to side. Now the general public, or at least that segment that travels by highway and pays insurance premiums, might be rallying firmly to the side of hunting.

"Hunting is the best way to control deer populations, but it's not that simple," says Curtis Taylor, head of wildlife resources for West Virginia's Division of Natural Resources. "Here is West Virginia, hunter access and attitudes are the real key. A lot of the land is privately owned and hunting is either prohibited or controlled by families or clubs and the number of deer taken can vary widely from property to property.

"Basically there three kinds of deer hunters here: Those who just want to shoot a trophy buck, those who just want to kill any buck, and those who just want to kill a deer and get some meat," Taylor said. "So on some land, there aren't enough does killed, even though we've liberalized seasons and bag limits in many counties. Also, there are a lot of deer in metropolitan areas where hunting isn't allowed, which gets the deer population out of whack. We've got lots of deer, but deer have to be managed wherever there is habitat."

Getting help from hunters

West Virginia isn't the only state where deer-vehicle collisions are forcing states and municipalities to take a second look at hunting as a control device. Some examples:

• In Pennsylvania and other states where buck and doe seasons once were kept separate, antlered and antlerless seasons have been overlapped in some areas to encourage hunters to shoot more does if such opportunities present themselves.
• Cities from Charleston, W.V., to Helena, Mont., from Kansas City to St. Paul, Minn., now routinely schedule state-managed bowhunts to take out nuisance deer within city limits. Even townships in staunchly anti-hunting New England communities have established special bowhunts, or engaged companies such as White Buffalo that specialize in reducing nuisance deer.
• States where most hunting land is privately owned, such as Ohio and Kansas, are creating or expanding walk-in hunting programs that reward landowners who allow deer hunters on their property. Usually, tax breaks or cash payouts incentivize the landowner.
• Fifty years ago, in many regions even seeing a deer was a rarity; now we hope that we don't, at least not while we're behind the wheel of the family sedan. In places where hunters once were considered pariahs, they're now being heralded as possible saviors to the folks weary of crashing their cars into Bambi. And considering the amount of money deer hunters shell out to purchase licenses, equipment, fuel, accommodations and food, hunting deer is a lot more cost-effective than hitting deer.

How to avoid roadway deer

• Pay attention to deer-crossing signs and slow down. Such signs are often erected after deer-vehicle collisions occurred in a particular stretch of road, or frequent sightings were reported to public transportation officials.
• During the winter, deer are most active at dusk and the first few hours of darkness. If you're in deer country, be especially watchful then.
• Keep on high-beam headlamps to help illuminate rights-of-way on either side. If a deer is standing in the middle of the road ahead, seemingly frozen by the bright headlights, alternately dim and brighten them. Sometimes it works to make the deer move instantly, but not always.
• If one doe crosses the road, look for others to come. Does often travel together, or single does might be followed by yearlings. During the rut, a buck might be trailing the single doe that just crossed your path.
• Save yourself. If hitting the deer is your best option, go for it. If a collision is imminent, swerve only if the rights-of-way are open and relatively flat and there's not much chance the vehicle will flip or run into a tree or oncoming vehicle.