The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that about 1 million deer-car accidents occur on American roads each year, killing 200 people, injuring almost 10,000 more, and causing about $1 billion in vehicle damage. The peak time for these collisions comes each fall.
Cornell University experts in both animal-human interactions and highway safety discuss this dangerous annual peak, and how drivers can increase their odds of arriving safe and sound this fall.
Paul Curtis is a professor of natural resources and a nationally recognized expert on rural, suburban and urban wildlife. He has coordinated the Wildlife Damage Management Program for Cornell Cooperative Extension since 1990.
"The numbers of deer-related vehicle accidents are highest each fall as the peak of deer breeding season approaches," Curtis said. "About two-thirds of the deer-car collisions that occur each year in New York happen during October, November and December.
"Motorists should be more alert for deer at this time of year, especially in early morning and around dusk. If a deer-car collision is inevitable, it is better to hit the deer, than to swerve and try to avoid it. People are more likely to be injured if their car leaves the roadway, or they cross lanes into oncoming traffic.
"Deer-vehicle accidents peak in November, as does the rut, or breeding season, which usually peaks during early November in New York. Bucks are chasing does for breeding possibilities, and deer are less attentive to traffic. With this additional deer movement during breeding season, deer cross highways more frequently, increasing the probability of collisions with cars. In addition, with shorter days this time of year, the normal peak in deer movement near dusk and dawn coincides with rush-hour commuter traffic. So the likelihood of deer-vehicle accidents increases because there are more deer and cars on the highway at the same times of the day."
Lynne Irwin is a professor of biological and environmental engineering and a registered professional engineer whose experience focuses on highway engineering. Irwin is the director of the Cornell Local Roads Program, which provides local highway agencies in New York with technical assistance and training through the Cooperative Extension network.
"Drivers need to slow down and be vigilant; there is little more they can do," Lynne said. "By slowing down, they reduce the chances that a vehicle occupant will be seriously injured in the event of a deer-vehicle collision. The severity of the injury is proportional to the square of the speed, so cutting your driving speed in half reduces the severity of the impact to one-fourth.
"Rainy days are a problem due to reduced visibility, poor lighting and lower pavement skid resistance. It is especially important to slow down and be alert in such conditions. Snowy days are less of a concern, because the deer hunker down and don't move around as much.
"The advice to not swerve the vehicle is important when confronted by a deer. The best place to hit a deer is in the flanks. The rib bones in the flanks are more flexible, and vehicular damage is minimized. Swerving the vehicle can risk roll-over accidents and possibly hit an oncoming vehicle or a roadside object. Most vehicles today have anti-lock brakes, so slamming on the brakes has fewer consequences than what used to be the case. The objective is to reduce speed as much as possible before the collision, and still maintain steering control in the vehicle.
"In some situations, the deer runs into the car, rather than the other way around. There isn't much the motorist can do about that. While there may be costly damage to the side of the vehicle, the occupants are unlikely to be badly injured in such cases. And often the deer lives, a bit sore perhaps, and maybe a little smarter."