How Best to Handle a Deer Encounter While Driving
As many Virginia drivers already know, navigating local roads usually has the added element of necessary deer watching built right in as evidenced by the plethora of yellow “Deer Crossing” signs about.
Everyone has near miss or accident stories – even in the city of Charlottesville where one deer recently took a leap off a side street ramp onto the Rt. 250 bypass below and right through a windshield of a passing car – a scary experience indeed!
Every year, deer collisions are the cause of hundreds of thousands of car accidents along North American roads. If you want to avoid one, you have to be alert and know what to do if you come head-to-head with one. Motorists need to heighten their awareness of deer during the fall breeding season. Deer do not stop and look both ways when they cross a highway.
Collisions between deer and automobiles result in a substantial cost, including damage to vehicles, the loss of a valuable wildlife resource and human injuries or fatalities. As deer and human populations have grown in the metropolitan areas, this danger has become greater.
Although no statistics are available regarding the combined property damage and personal injury loss resulting from deer/vehicle collisions in Charlottesville City, property damage alone is enough for everyone to sit up and take notice.
Most accidents occur between dusk and dawn. Watch for deer where roads pass through wooded or rural areas. The most important thing drivers can do to reduce the chances of an accident with a deer is to drive the speed limit. Wildlife experts have recommended 55 mph as a suitable speed for wildlife zones in good weather conditions, as it provides you with some reaction time to stop.
Here are some other tips to keep in mind as a driver:
- Deer usually travel in groups and generally maintain a home range of about one square mile. When you see a deer cross the road, slow down and use caution. Often additional deer are out of view and more are likely to follow.
- A deer standing calmly in a field may suddenly jump into the road.
- Elevate your deer awareness at locations with deer crossing signs. These indicate areas where heavily used deer trails cross roadways. Slow down and watch for the eye-shine of deer near the roadway edges.
- During the early morning and late afternoon hours year round, deer tend to be more active. They are moving between evening feeding areas and daytime bedding sites.
- Be especially cautious from October to January during the breeding season, and in May and June when yearlings are seeking new territories. In Spring, deer move as snow disappears and tend to gravitate near roadway shoulders for the first greening grass and remaining roadway salt.
- Slow down to avoid hitting a deer, but do not swerve. This can cause you to lose control and strike another vehicle or to leave the highway and strike a tree or other object. Injuries to drivers and passengers increase when the vehicle swerves.
- Drive defensively. Be prepared to take evasive action, which includes being able to quickly slow down, brake suddenly or turn down blinding headlights. Drive so that you are able to stop within the space of your headlights; practice this in a safe area if you don’t know how fast this is for your vehicle. Make sure your seat belt is on and check that all passengers are wearing theirs as well.
- Observe your surroundings. Actively scan the sides of the roads for any signs of wildlife. If you have passengers, get them involved. Ask them to calmly tell you that they see deer about. Look on the road sides, the shoulders, down into ditches (they love the grass there), median strips, intersecting roads, on the road itself and try to spot any signs of movement, flashes of eyes or body shapes. Watch both sides of the road; there is some evidence that drivers tend to watch the side of the road next to the passenger seat more than their own side, making a false assumption that only one side is a problem. Scan both sides!
- Be especially wary at sunset and sunrise. Deer and moose seem to move most in the hours around sunset tomidnight and again around dawn. These are also the hardest times for our eyes to adjust to the light because it’s neither completely dark nor properly light, so we find it more difficult to see well. If you don’t feel alert or can’t see properly at these times, save your trip for another time.
- Drive carefully at night. Use your high beams where possible and when there are no oncoming cars that you can startle with them; they will illuminate more of the area that you are traveling through..
- Slow down when other cars are behaving differently. If you see flashing lights (hazard or headlights), hear tooting horns or see people waving madly about, slow down and be ready to stop. Of course, if a car stops suddenly ahead of you, you should also stop or at least slow right down. In these situations, the other cars may well have stopped because animals are already crossing the road ahead of you.
- Be alert – even when you’re approaching a town or a city. You’ve just driven into the outskirts of town, so everything is safe now, right? Wrong! Deer wander into towns and city outskirts in search of food. They could be munching away on the median strip or bolting from someone’s front garden. Still drive carefully. When you do come across a deer, don’t expect them to react rationally.
- Know when not to swerve. If you suddenly have a deer before your car, brake firmly. Do not swerve and leave your lane; many accidents are not due to colliding with the deer but are the result of driving into another car or truck in the opposite lane while trying to avoid the animal. The best thing to do is drive defensively in the first place and go slowly enough that you won’t collide with a deer and can brake in time.
* Take care after a collision with a deer. There are some important steps to take after assessing if everyone is relatively unharmed:
* Pull over if possible. Put your hazard lights on and if you can, put the headlights onto the animal or as close as possible.
* Check passengers for injuries and treat accordingly. Even if there are no injuries, shock will probably occur fairly quickly. Try to reassure one another and if it is cold, put on warmer clothing immediately as shock or fear increases the inability to ward off cold. If it is winter, stay in the car for warmth.
*Avoid going near the animal; it may kick or gore you from fear and pain. If it blocks the road, use your hazard lights and headlights and keep your car stationary. Only attempt to move the animal if you are 100% certain that it’s dead.
*Call the police immediately or flag down help. Remember that most insurance companies won’t pay for the damages you suffer from hitting a deer if you don’t file a police report. Don’t wash your vehicle until after the insurance company has seen and photographed the damage.
If you swerve away from a deer or moose in the road and hit something else, like a safety rail or tree, your automobile insurance may charge you for an at-fault accident and make you pay your collision deductible. If you hit the animal you will pay your comprehensive deductible, which is often lower than your collision deductible.
- Be extra aware if there’s a fire. Deer and other animals will move quite a distance away from the fire and will cross roads far from their usual areas. Even if the fire is miles away, watch for the animals at any time to be leaving the fire areas.
The best advice may be to keep driving at the speed you are going without any rapid change in speed or direction and let the deer’s natural instincts take care of both of you. It obviously helps to moderate speed in circumstances where this might happen.