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Reducing the High Cost of Wildlife Vehicle Collisions

After a full day of driving, we were less than ten miles from home. A brown blur dashed across the road just within range of the headlights. If only I could’ve quickly applied the brakes to try and stop the car before the herd of deer made the crossing, we would’ve narrowly escaped. No harm to human, animal or vehicle. But as we were coming to a slightly delayed stop, we heard THUD, CRACK, SHREEK!

The reflexes that stopped my car from hitting two deer that crossed in front of us resulted in a deer on the side slamming into the passenger door, snapping the mirror, and rolling onto the hood before getting its footing and stumbling into the woods.

The damage to our car was less than $150 for a replacement mirror, substantially below our deductible, meaning we didn’t have to report it to our insurer. And with no dead or injured animal on the side of the road, there was nothing to report to the police or animal control. Many wildlife vehicle collisions like ours go unreported because the damage is either not enough to bother reporting, or because the owner of the vehicle has no collision coverage to place a claim against. Yet overall collisions with deer are striking in their danger and expense, causing 200 deaths and an estimated $4 billion dollars in damage in 2012 alone.

In a 2008 report to Congress the Federal Highway Administration reported that Animal Vehicle Collisions (AVCs) nearly doubled in frequency from 1990 to 2004, from about 175,000 to around 300,000; the FHA’s findings in the chart below:

Animal Vehicle Collisions from 1994 - 2004

Source: Federal Highway Administration

State Farm estimates that for the period of July 1, 2011 to July 1, 2012 there were 1.23 million deer-vehicle collisions that resulted in more than $4 billion in damage.

Deer Collisions by the Numbers

The odds are (national average) 1 in 171 that you will have a collision with a deer while driving your car or truck, according to the State Farm Insurance:

2011 Likelihood of Collision with Deer US Map

Source: State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company

Of course that average takes into account a very wide range, from the greatest chance of a vehicle strike in West Virginia of 1 in 53 to the very small chances of a collision in Hawaii of 1 in 6,267.

Neither Rhyme nor Reason

Common wisdom says that if you don’t live in a very rural locale, chances are you don’t have to worry about unwanted interactions with deer. Well the statistics don’t really support that.

We looked at the population density in the five states where the most deer collisions happen; you’ll notice that two of the states, Pennsylvania and Michigan, are in the top one third of population densities, and all five states are in the top 50 percent of highest populated states.

Table 1: Population Densities of the States with the Most Deer Collisions
State Odds of Deer Collision Population Density Population Density Rank
Table 1 Source: State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company and Census.gov
Michigan 1-90 175 sq mi. 15
West Virginia 1-53 75.1 sq mi. 29
South Dakota 1-81 9.9 sq mi. 46
Iowa 1-77 52.4 sq mi. 33
Pennsylvania 1-86 274 sq mi. 10

Let’s consider Ohio, a state with a wide range of deer habitats and human populations. Being out in the country is safer there than being in a more densely populated suburban county. Of Ohio’s 88 counties, the top 3 for deer collisions are all in the top 10 county populations for Ohio.

Table 2: Counties in Ohio with the Greatest Number of Deer Collisions
County Population Population Rank Deer Collisions
Table 2 Source: Ohio Insurance Institute and Census.gov
Tuscarawas 91,766 30 495
Stark 380,785 7 615
Hamilton 822,596 3 606
Lorain 301,993 9 602
Richland 127,010 22 599

The three biggest months for deer collisions are October, November, and June…and it all has to do with sex. In most of North America, deer rut, compete for mates and breed in October and November, with November being the busiest month in the deer social calendar followed by October. During the rut, deer populations become highly mobile, as bucks compete to build a harem of does.The Time of the Season

The heightened activity of the breeding season is closely followed six months later in June and July, when new fawns are born and anxious mothers look for as much fresh food as they can find; their preference for new grass often bring them out of the deep woods to the sides of roads where spring sunshine creates a constantly replenished source of fresh grass.

Sharing the Road with Wildlife

People and Animals

With the cost of animal collisions surpassing $4 billion annually (not including the cost of loss of productivity due to physical and emotional trauma), mitigating the risks is always under discussion. The most common form of risk reduction is in the form of roadside signage that alerts drivers to locations frequented by deer as crossing points. Considering these signs are thought to be the most effective form of crash-prevention, and are funded by taxpayers, it’s in your interest to support the installation of these signs throughout your communities.

Safety is a major rallying point for any residential area; if you feel like people are not receiving the proper road warnings, as a citizen of your community, you should make it your business. You can start by contacting your local government.

It’s worth noting that the primary shortcoming of animal crossing signs is driver apathy, which stems from drivers not seeing deer when they pass a warning sign, and then concluding that such signs can be ignored. As a result, some areas have begun deploying smart animal crossing signs that use lasers to detect the presence of wildlife. These lasers activate flashing lights to alert drivers that deer are present; drivers can then slow down and be actively prepare for an encounter.

Another highly effective counter measure is the use of fencing to deter deer, elk and moose from accessing roads altogether, or forcing them to cross at areas that offer minimal traffic and maximum visibility. The most costly means of mitigation is the construction of over and under passes for vehicle or animal use. While bypasses for deer are less expensive to construct, they are also less effective due to the animal’s skittish, somewhat unpredictable behavior near roads.

Collision Detection Systems

Primarily available on higher end luxury cars and as an aftermarket add-on, collision warning systems are becoming increasingly popular and may well become a common feature on all new vehicles over the next several years. The systems work using either infrared or forward looking radar systems that detect not only other vehicles and people, but animals ahead.

These systems are effective because they generally observe a wider area than the one directly in front of the vehicle. By providing a sort of enhanced forward looking peripheral vision they are able to alert drivers to potential hazards, such as animals beyond the range of headlights.

Road Safety: Prevention and Precaution

The chances of a collision with a deer are greatest when deer are most active: at dawn, shortly before dusk, and hours after sunset. Deer tend to find a safe place to bed down during the day as protection from overheating and predators.

Understanding when, why and where deer move are really the first precautionary measure you need to take. Deer are creatures of habit, and in addition to their species wide habits, local populations will behave the same way for generations, often crossing roads and feeding in the same spots at the same times. So keeping up on where you’ve seen deer in the past is a smart way to anticipate where and when your defensive driving habits should be the sharpest.

Whistling in the Dark

Any hunter will tell you deer have very good hearing. Hunters will tell you that if a deer hears a sound they consider dangerous, they will take off running. Hunters will also tell you familiar sounds, no matter how loud, won’t make them budge at all.

For deer who are used to cars and car sounds from generations of feeding on the sides of roads, there are few vehicular sounds they are unfamiliar with; sadly this includes those little plastic deer whistles. At publication of this article, there is little to no evidence that they have any effect on deer at all.

The Best Offense is a Good Defense

When it comes to reducing the chance of a collision with a deer, the best course of action is to be smarter than the deer. That means understanding they are not going to change their habits because they don’t have the faintest idea they are in danger. If they won’t change, you have to.

Slow down and be alert. Again, this is especially true in the busy months of October, November, June and July. Be particularly mindful when driving at times of day when they are most active. By staying alert and slowing down, you give yourself the ability to stop faster and avoid a collision with a reckless whitetail.

Driving by the Numbers – Is it Really Worth it to Go 10 Miles Faster?

Consider: The average American commutes about 16 miles each way to work.

Table 3: Your Traveling Speed and Actual Time Saved
Traveling Speed Distance Traveled About How Long it Takes to Travel that Distance
80 mph 16 miles 12 minutes
65 mph 16 miles 15 minutes
50mph 16 miles 19 minutes – just 4 minutes longer than at 65 mph.

In what world are those four minutes worth all of the increased risk you and your car incur?

Spread that out over the four months of increased deer activity and you’re giving up less than 3 hours a year to keep you, your passengers, car and wildlife far safer from a collision.

Now think about how long it takes to stop, including reaction time.

Table 4: Your Traveling Speed and the Distance Required to Stop
Traveling Speed Distance Required to Stop What it Means to You
80 mph 481 feet About the length of 1½ NFL football fields, including both end zones.
65 mph 345 feet This is 15 feet short of a NFL football field, including both end zones.
50mph 229 feet Slowing down to 50 mph gives you 116 more feet to protect yourself from a crash.

While you may be forced to drive at speeds above 50 mph during your commute, especially on the highway, the math still holds true: decreased speeds do not add an unreasonable amount of time to the average commute. But decreased speeds do provide significantly more protection against collisions. 

Creatures of Habit

Animal crossing signs are effective because deer are creatures of habit, and will frequent the same locations for generations. As mentioned earlier, drivers can use this knowledge to their advantage and in turn reduce their risk of collision.

Understanding what deer are looking for is another effective measure to take. Deer spend a lot of time feeding on one of their favorite foods: grass. Knowing where, along the road, there are wide grassy shoulders bordered by thick woods and underbrush will keep you far more aware of potential deer. And exercising aggressive defensive driving habits, such as actively scanning approaching shoulders and reducing your speed will  greatly improve your chances of avoiding a collision.

Deer in the Headlights

The expression “frozen like a deer in the headlights” is based on the reality that deer will often become entranced by the bright glow of oncoming headlights. An excellent means of defusing this situation when it occurs is to quickly flash your lights so the animal’s concentration will break. A blast of the horn will reinforce your warning and increase the likelihood the deer will get out your path.

Contrary to instinct, you should avoid swerving in order to avoid deer standing in the road. When the animal decides to make a break in one direction or another, there is a 50/50 chance you will be swerve there and your effort to avoid the collision will end up being responsible for a collision.

Swerving puts more than the deer in peril, it creates a greater danger for the driver.

In moments of reaction, you don’t necessarily make the best swerving choice. It’s possible that you’ll turn in the wrong direction, sending you into another lane of traffic. This increases the chances of either a head-on collision with an oncoming vehicle or side-swiping someone traveling next to you. Other dangers presented by swerving include drifting onto the shoulder and into a barrage of off road hazards.

Worst Case Scenario: After a Collision

Collision Protection

The vast majority of auto collision policies do not cover collisions with animals. Despite the fact that it is in fact a collision, most insurance companies do not treat it as such. Damage resulting from animal collisions, including deer, are generally covered under comprehensive coverage.

For people living in areas with a large deer population, especially suburban areas where hunting is limited or non-existent, and deer tend to be less cautious, the addition of comprehensive coverage is often wise. Be sure to read your policy’s exclusions to make sure animal collisions are not excluded from coverage. If you’re still unsure, ask your insurance agent.

The Claims Process

Unlike other kinds of collisions, there are rarely police reports, other drivers or witnesses to verify the accident. This places the burden exclusively on the driver to document everything. Beginning with noting the exact time and location of the collision, and an exact description of the animal hit.

If the collision leaves your vehicle un-drivable, contact a licensed garage to tow your vehicle to a body shop or your home. Be sure to:

  1. Keep all receipts for towing and service.
  2. Create a photographic record of the damage as soon after the accident as possible in order to accurately capture the damage.

Contact your insurer and provide all known information in order to begin the claims process. This is where photographic evidence is vital because it is often the only proof you will have that damage occurred. If your car is not already at a repair shop, inquire as to whether you are obligated to use an approved repair facility, and if so, the locations of said shops in your area.

You will be expected to pay your deductible directly to the repair shop, as well as any costs in excess of your coverage limits. One of these costs could be a rental car. While temporary rental costs may be covered when a collision involves another vehicle, they may not be covered when you hit an animal. Be sure to ask before you incur expenses that may not be covered.

The Aftermath

A collision of any sort can subject your body and the bodies of passengers to tremendous physical and mental stress; for instance, whiplash, a common danger in such an accident, may not become evident until a day or two after the collision. Be sure to look for signals from your body that something does not feel right, including unusual aches, pains and headaches. If anything develops, be sure to seek medical attention immediately.

Beyond the financial cost of an animal collision, there can certainly be an emotional toll. There is no right or wrong way to feel after an animal collision, and reactions vary.

Take the time you need to recover emotionally and consider seeking professional care if the feelings linger for an extended period of time, or if you find yourself struggling to get behind the wheel. Some anxiety is of course normal, especially when returning to the route where the collision occurred, but when that anxiety becomes debilitating, it should be addressed professionally.

Additional Resources

For more information, please take a look at one of these organizations:

  • ARC-Solutions is a non-governmental (NGO) partnership that is a collaborative effort of professionals to identify and implement solutions that protect humans and animals alike.
  • The Federal Highway Administration’s 2008 Report to Congress is a definitive guide to understanding the costs behind wildlife vehicle collisions, as well as how to reduce their impact.
  • Defenders of Wildlife provide an informative fact sheet about wildlife vehicle collisions that includes an extensive set of links to additional resources.
  • The website How Stuff Works offers an informative overview of how current and emerging collision avoidance systems work; it’s a great starting point for anyone considering a new vehicle with such a system onboard or is thinking of purchasing an aftermarket system.

Ultimately the responsibility for reducing wildlife vehicle collisions rests in the hands of drivers. Heightened awareness and diligence during peak deer seasons is a simple and effective way to reduce the number of collisions, which ultimately means saving lives (human and animal) and also saving drivers thousands in potential damages.

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