Darting deer demands defensive driving
November 8, 2013
Traveling on Highway 49 at 55 mph in north Auburn, something suddenly appeared out of nowhere. It darted so unexpectedly into my path that there was no time to react. The resulting damage was so extensive that my car had to be towed away.
It was completely totaled, permanently inoperable. What remained after everything subsided was a huge dead deer (a buck) by the roadside.
November marks when the most deer-vehicle collisions occur in California (followed by October then December). Thankfully, California has the fortunate distinction of being among the five least likely states for deer-related accidents.
Surprisingly, the number of deer being hit is quite substantial. According to State Farm, "The total number of deer collisions between July 1, 2012 and June 30, 2013 was 1.22 million" nationwide. The average property damage cost due to deer-vehicle collisions is $3,414 per incident. And nationally, deer collisions cause $1.1 billion in property damage annually.
Why are there so many deer-vehicle collisions?
Overpopulation can increase the frequency of deer-vehicle collisions. Actually, 20 to 30 million deer live in North America. And roughly 445,000 inhabit more than half of California where the odds of hitting a deer are one in 1,046.
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Drivers are more likely to hit them during deer mating season, which lasts three months. From October to December, when mating density intensifies, most deer become oblivious to traffic.
Deer collisions have also grown because more drivers are using rural/forest roads. Many roads have encroached on wildlife habitats, increasing the chances of collisions occurring.
In addition, many deer are becoming less fearful of humans in more localities. By regularly feeding deer — putting out food specifically for them — many become somewhat "tame" and, therefore, more unaware of the danger lurking in crossing roads. (Note: "It is illegal to feed deer in California. Penalties may include a fine and/or jail time," warns the California Department of Fish and Game.)
For obvious reasons, deer collisions can be worse riding a motorcycle. Take, for example, what happened to a Nevada City resident two years ago. On June 13, 2011, around 9 a.m., David Howard Crain was traveling south of Brownsville in Yuba County on his motorcycle about 55 mph when a deer ran onto the road. It happened too quickly. Crain didn't have time to stop. His motorcycle flew off the road, landed in a rocky ditch, and the impact forcefully ejected him. He died instantly.
So what can be done to avoid hitting deer?
If at all possible, when spotting a deer up ahead, slow down. Stop. Honk your horn with one long blast to frighten it off the road, wait for the deer to leave the roadway, and then proceed with caution. They travel in packs. So be careful accelerating because where there's one, there's usually others. (Slow down when approaching deer standing off the road, too. They can "bolt" or change direction at any moment.)
Also, be extra careful driving at night because deer are nocturnal animals. They're harder to see at night and, therefore, much easier to hit. Deer are the most active around dawn and dusk.
What should you do about an impending deer collision?
Don't speed up. Try to stay calm. Don't pull into oncoming traffic to avoid it or steer onto the shoulder. Apply your brakes firmly, hold steadily onto the steering wheel, hit the deer, then try to bring your vehicle safely to a controlled stop. If possible, put your hazard lights on, pull over and assess the damage. (Incidentally, you can't keep the deer carcass unless a permit is first obtained from a law-enforcement officer at the accident scene. Also, don't try to move an injured deer.)
You should hit it?
If unavoidable, yes. Many safety experts claim it's less dangerous just going ahead and hitting one than swerving radically to avoid it. By taking unsafe evasive measures, it's easy to wind up dead or injured either off the roadway or from a head-on, two-car crash.
You should report your damaging deer collision to the CHP or city police. An officer's report helps with your vehicle insurance claim. You should also notify your insurance company ASAP.
So deer-vehicle collisions can cause deer fatalities, property damage and human injury, even death. Keep in mind that November is the apex of the mating season, so there's more of them roaming around Nevada County than during other times of the year. Please, be especially vigilant driving this month when deer kill the most vehicles. Drive safely. Always. And buckle up.
David Briceno lives in Grass Valley.