Fall factors frequently bring deer into roadway
PORTAGE, Ohio — It was minutes after midnight as Chad Mathias was heading north via State Rt. 25, just beyond this Wood County village. He set the cruise control to 60 miles per hour and motored on.
The supervisor at a Bowling Green manufacturing plant was going to work on a recent cold fall night when a white-tailed deer came out of the woods along the highway and bounded across the road.
In just a slice of a fraction of a nanosecond, Mr. Mathias caught the deer in his peripheral vision, squeezed down on the brake pedal, and felt the dull thud of the impact. Fortunately for the Fostoria resident, he was driving a 2003 Hummer H2, which weighs in at around 8,500 pounds.
The high-profile, military-style vehicle struck the deer broadside, sending it into the grassy median. The Hummer took about $4,500 in damage, but Mr. Mathias was not hurt. He knows he was fortunate, since deer-vehicle crashes involving smaller cars often result in injuries to the driver and passengers.
“I know what can happen. I’ve seen some pretty bad things come out of these crashes with deer,” Mr. Mathias said. “I’m thankful I have a bigger truck, because cars sit lower and can fling that deer into the air and right through the windshield. It’s an understatement to say I feel fortunate.”
His chance rendezvous with a deer will go into the insurance logs as another deer-vehicle crash in the October-November-December period, when nearly half of such crashes occur.
“It is definitely that time of year,” said Mr. Mathias, an experienced hunter who is familiar with the peak activity period for whitetails. “They are on the move, and this deer came right onto the highway at full speed. I don’t know if he was chasing a doe or another buck was chasing him, but he was going full bore when I hit him.”
The late fall/early winter portion of the calendar hosts the confluence of two major factors that bring about increased activity with white-tailed deer, and put them in the path of motorists — mating season and hunting season.
Females, or does, go into estrus and are ready to mate. The males, or bucks, become more active in pursuit of the does and in territorial battles with other bucks. Bucks that are extremely wary and reclusive the rest of the year suddenly throw caution to the wind when the rut, or mating period, commences.
“He was on a dead run, and deer don’t do that unless something is driving them,” Mr. Mathias said. “This is absolutely the time when people need to be more aware. There are a lot of factors that play into it, but basically deer are out of their comfort zone and moving around a lot. That puts them in the path of vehicles — just what I experienced.”
Statistics from the insurance industry show that nearly half of all deer-vehicle crashes in Ohio and Michigan occur in the last three months of the year. The timing of the rut comes later as you move from south to north, and the data on motorist encounters with deer on the roadways follows the same trend.
Ottawa County Sheriff Steve Levorchick said drivers need to approach travel with an increased awareness once fall wanes and winter approaches.
“It’s very important to be aware of deer and keep in mind that anytime you are driving in that dusk-to-dawn time period, especially during the rut, deer are going to be moving around,” said Levorchick, an accomplished deer hunter. “Drivers should always be aware of what’s along the sides of the road.”
Deer are also pushed into movement this time of year by agricultural work, as farmers take off huge fields of corn that provided endless sanctuary for the past four months or so. Archery hunters have been in the woods since late September in both Michigan and Ohio, and soon will be joined by firearm hunters as those seasons open in the month of November, creating more disruptions that can push deer across paved surfaces.
“We always want to travel the speed limit, but it is especially important now in the rural areas,” Levorchick said. “Deer are moving very heavily right now.”
That advice works well for all, and anywhere on the map. Ohio and Michigan no longer do formal estimates of the size of the deer herd in each state, opting to manage more on a regional or county level, but deer are present in significant numbers throughout the Midwest, and during this peak period for deer activity these populations are exposed to traffic much more often.
“Deer are on the move more, for several reasons,” said John Windau from the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s Columbus headquarters. “We’re approaching the breeding season, the crops are coming off the fields, and deer are putting on weight for the winter. That all adds up to more deer moving across the roads, and more opportunities for collisions with cars.”
Beyond the essential use of seat belts, Mr. Windau also recommends reducing speed in the twilight hours, and using high beams, which will better catch the eyes of deer.
“But if a collision is unavoidable, don’t swerve to avoid the deer,” he said. “Most of the time, you are better off striking the deer than swerving and risking losing control of the car, and then striking another immovable object, such as a tree or a pole.”
The Division of Wildlife official said drivers both in the city and in the rural areas need to dial up the awareness and expect white-tailed deer to be more active, especially in the twilight hours.
“And they tend to be grouped up at this time of year, so when you see one deer, don’t assume that is the only one,” Mr. Windau said. “It might be the first in a group, so it’s best to always assume there will be more coming.”
Ohio’s hill country owns most of the deer hunting legends, but whitetails are prevalent throughout the state and can appear in your path just about any time on any roadway.
According to State Farm’s data, motorists in Ohio have a 1-in-126 chance of being involved in a collision with a deer, while the odds for Michigan drivers are 1-in-85. The highest percentage of drivers involved in deer crashes is in West Virginia at 1-in-41, with Montana next at 1-in-58 and Pennsylvania at 1-in-67.
The lowest percentage is in Hawaii, where there are no native deer, but both axis and black-tailed deer have been introduced on several islands. Motorists in Hawaii have just a 1-in-18,955 chance of being involved in a collision with a deer.
Sheriff Chris Caulk from Isanti County, Minn., just north of Minneapolis, recently lost his fourth department vehicle this year to a deer crash when a deputy racing to respond to a report of a man with a gun hit a deer at a high rate of speed. The deputy received minor injuries from the air bag deployment, while the cruiser was totaled.
Drivers who encounter a deer in the roadway or alongside the pavement should immediately slow down since deer are unpredictable and can dart in front of vehicles with no warning. Law enforcement officials also recommend maintaining control of the vehicle at all times and applying the brakes in a controlled fashion to give the deer time to move out of your path. They repeatedly stress that drivers should never swerve to avoid a collision.
“If he had swerved and there was oncoming traffic, that collision is going to amount to something more serious,” Sheriff Caulk said about his deputy’s high-speed collision with the deer, in an interview with local media. “Early morning and late evening — they’re out there, and you know it’s dark out and you just don’t see them until it’s too late.”
Law enforcement officials also recommend letting off the brake just before impact, since hard braking can cause the front of the car to dip, catapulting the deer over the hood and through the windshield.
It is also strongly recommended that after a deer strike, motorists not touch the deer or attempt to move it from the roadway, as an injured animal can be very dangerous.Click here to return to our blog