At the intersection of cars and deer

Essays on Non-Virtual Reality

PHOTO BY KEN BAKER The carnage of the author’s encounter with a white-tailed deer.

It’s totally not supposed to work this way.

Seriously, the two other times I hit a deer–one a gentle no-harm-done kiss with the bumper and the other a $4,200 rearrangement of the truck’s front end–at least those both occurred when you might expect, at dusk on a brisk November evening.

So I was not prepared to find myself parked off the side of US 224 at two o’clock in the afternoon the first day of March with a State Trooper bustling about taking photos.

“Do you think you’ll be able to make it home alright, sir, or will you need a tow?”

I thought I’d be OK; just had to cut off a few slabs of crumpled plastic jutting into the right front wheel well. Easier said than done of course, but a fine opportunity to play with my Leatherman multi-tool.

The first I knew of the change in my plans for the afternoon was a resounding boom as the doe slammed into me just in front of the passenger’s door. As if in slow motion, I brought my head around to the right. Three seconds ground by, each subdivided into separate eternities; I had eons of time to find and consider her dark, uncomprehending eye.

And then the clock kicked back in, she was thrown to her fate and a thousand now-what concerns flooded my brain as I eased the car out of traffic–911, accident reports, insurance claims, collision shop, inconvenience, money, money, money.

Inconvenience. In the rearview mirror I saw her weakly stumble across the highway. The car that had been traveling fifty yards behind me sped by in the driving rain. Probably had somewhere important to be.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that over 1.5 million deer-vehicle collisions (DVC’s) occur in the US each year, resulting in excess of $1 billion in vehicle damage and 150-200 human deaths.

For the past 15 years State Farm, the largest automobile insurer in the nation, has calculated the state-by-state odds of a driver hitting a deer, elk, moose or caribou. The data is more than sobering. For the most recent survey year (July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017), the probability that a driver would be involved in a DVC requiring submission of an insurance claim was 1 out 164.

That’s one out of every 164 American drivers during a single 12 month period. But that’s just the overall average; where you live (which state, rural or urban environment), the time of year and time of day make a big difference.

As in each of the past ten years, West Virginia led the nation in how likely a driver was to file a DVC-related claim. The state’s shocking rate of 1 out of 43 drivers was actually an improvement over last year’s 1 out of 41. Montana and Pennsylvania, at 1 out of 57 and 1 out of 63 drivers, took second and third honors in the competition nobody wants to win.

Iowa, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wyoming, Michigan and North Dakota filled out the top 10. Although Ohio is classified as a high-risk state, its calculated risk of 1 driver out of 128 placed it 22nd among the states.

But again, these are state averages over an entire year. Generally, your chance of experiencing a DVC doubles during mating season, with November being the worst month for collisions followed by October and December.

At that time of year, not only do males wander much more widely in search of potential mates, but in northern areas both does and stags actively seek out nutritious forage found in more open areas to build up fat reserves for the upcoming winter.

Then too, the great majority of deer collisions occur around dawn or dusk when deer are more willing to forage away from the protection of thick cover and when drivers’ vision of the road ahead and its surrounds is at its worst.

And finally, this. The State Farm report observed that the average cost per claim last year was $4,179, up $184 from the previous year. Given the sensible desire to avoid such an expense coupled with the humane wish to not injure an animal, your instinct may be to swerve if you’re going too fast to stop.

It’s your worst option. The majority of DVC-related human deaths occur when a driver swerves into oncoming traffic or off the road into a tree or ditch rolling his car. Then there’s the insurance angle: DVC claims are typically covered under Comprehensive insurance (if you carry this relatively inexpensive option).

Unlike DVC damage claims under Collision insurance, which can be expected to lead to a hefty surcharge on future insurance fees, a claim under Comprehensive coverage generally avoids such increases.

Ken Baker is a scientist and a retired biology professor. If you have a natural history topic you’d like the author to consider for an upcoming column, email your idea to rweaver