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Deer Vs Car: No Winners Here

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To view the IIHS report in its entirety, visit www.iihs.org.

TCC Tip: Deer Reader by Denise McCluggage (11/23/2003)
Animal death on the highway and how to avoid it.

If you live in an Eastern or Midwest state — or even elsewhere — you’ve probably had at least a close call with a deer on a dusky, tree-lined highway. Late fall is the peak season when deer are on the move, too, so cross your fingers. But with the average car weighing nearly two tons with occupants and cargo and the average deer weighing less than 200 pounds, in just about any accident, the deer don’t have a chance; the occupants usually emerge with few if any injuries — albeit with costly damage to their car.

Each year, there are more than 1.5 million crashes involving deer, causing an estimated $1.1 billion in vehicle damages, 150 lives lost, and more than 10,000 injuries. And, most people involved in auto insurance will say, the figures are much higher. While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) keeps annual figures for car-deer accidents, the figures lack a measure of exactness and certainty because there’s currently no standardization in the reporting of deer-related accidents throughout the country, and because what constitutes a “reportable accident” varies so much between states.

Any way you look at it, $1.1 billion is a lot of money, even to the auto insurance industry, which should be quite concerned about car-deer collisions and looking for better ways to help avoid them. Well they are, but a report released last year by a group representing the interests of the insurance industry reveals that there’s a lack of formal research on what works and what doesn’t — while the information that’s available is far more anecdotal than decisive.

Studying Bambi

The report, “Methods to Reduce Traffic Crashes Involving Deer: What Works and What Does Not,” commissioned by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), examines the effectiveness of various tactics used to keep deer away.

The report looked at a long list of specialized studies that had been done on various measures purported to help reduce collisions with deer and found that few could actually be proven effective and worth the costs of implementing them.

Merely reminding drivers to slow down and be more careful in areas especially prone to deer doesn’t seem to produce any real results, says the report. Education campaigns for drivers haven’t been correlated to any drop in car-deer collisions unless they specify a certain time and place where drivers need to slow down. The same goes for passive signs (the yellow ‘Deer X-ing’ ones); because they’re virtually everywhere so they have little impact, and illuminating the signs doesn’t seem to help.

The only measurable change in driver habits (and a reduction in deer collisions) was from the use of temporary flashing ‘hazard’ signs on a section of roadway crossing a deer-migration route. It slowed drivers by about eight miles per hour and showed a promising 50- to 70-percent drop in deer collisions versus on that same stretch of roadway the previous few years. Active alert signs that are triggered by deer in the vicinity are being considered, but developers need to find ways to reduce the number of false positive due to factors like birds, snow, and other smaller creatures.

Whistling no, fencing yes

The report also digs into the data available on deer whistles, the ‘ultrasonic’ devices either powered by wind force or batteries to emit a wavelength and intensity that supposedly repels deer. Although the whistle-sellers and some informal studies claim otherwise, IIHS report concluded that there’s a lack of conclusive evidence that the whistles — whether the dollar-store adhesive kind or the more sophisticated ones — help to keep deer from darting into your path.

Keeping the deer off the roadway completely is of course the other solution. Deer fences have proven quite effective in reducing the number of collisions on stretches of roadway where they’re used. But the fences have to be tall (eight feet) to work best, and at more than $42,000 per mile for unsightly chain-link, aren’t cheap. Also, wildlife critics say they interrupt the migratory patterns of the animals.

Underpass crossings for the animals have been tried with mixed success, and their high cost doesn’t seem to justify them. Solutions that one might think quite effective, like bright roadway lighting, reflectors, or repellent odors, might work on a case-by-case basis but again more information is needed.

Deer fences are the only proven-effective solution that dramatically reduces the number of car-deer collisions and worth the investment, the report concluded, while there are a number of other strategies that might work conditionally if decision-makers had access to more information.

The report called for more formal research into what works and what doesn’t work for keeping deer away from roadways. Additionally, more studies need to be done in collaboration with wildlife management programs as to how and to what extent herd-control programs should proceed. Deer herd reduction programs are controversial, but with the North American deer herd at a near-record level, common sense supports that it would lead to a reduction in collisions with deer.

Better identification

More importantly, since collisions with deer are such an important issue to be addressed, the IIHS report calls for states to identify car-deer crashes separately rather than tagging all crashes with animals together, and to standardize the reporting of car-deer crashes. It cites how deer make up an inconsistent proportion of recorded car-animal crashes from state to state (for example, 99.7 percent in Michigan but only 90 and 93 percent in Minnesota and Pennsylvania, respectively).

With a portion of drivers on the road uninsured, unlicensed, or driving under the influence, many more deer collisions probably go unrecorded. The IIHS report cites a small New York state survey estimating that as many as half of deer collisions go unreported to police, while even more of the collisions go unreported to insurance carriers.

For instance, in Michigan there were 63,136 car-deer crashes on record for 2002, but the Michigan Deer Crash Coalition (MDCC), an education and research group between the private sector and state and local governments, estimates the actual annual figure at about 80,000.

Strictly within the scope of the law, even more go unreported. For instance, many states — Minnesota, for instance — don’t require reporting a deer collision at all, regardless of the vehicle damage, provided no other car was involved (though in order to be covered by insurance you must get a police/accident report). In some states — including Michigan — any accident with more than $400 of combined damage must be reported, while in many other states — such as South Carolina — the figure is $1000 in damage to any particular vehicle. In those states with monetary thresholds, if car is only slightly damaged then the incident isn’t likely to be figured into deer-involved accident statistics even if a report is made for insurance purposes.

The average accident involving a single car and a deer does about $2000 in damage to the car — costly for sure, but nothing compared to the kind of accident you can get into with a tree or another car while avoiding a deer.

“Sometimes steering around a potential accident gets you into more trouble,” said Bill Semion, a spokesman for AAA Michigan, who commented that even if you have a small, maneuverable sports car like a MINI Cooper S it won’t be of much help in a deer encounter due to the animals’ unpredictable nature.

In situations when someone avoiding a collision with a deer gets in a much more serious collision with another car — or with a tree — deer often get omitted in the reporting system and factors like excessive speed, road conditions, or driver error listed as a primary cause. “There are too many variables to say whether it’s the deer or the act of avoidance,” explained Semion.

“I’ve even heard of an accident where a deer ran into the side of a pickup — and totaled it,” added Semion, explaining that to law enforcement’s current methods of accident reporting there’s no good way to classify such accidents.

With the way that car-deer accidents are reported and the lack of consistency in classifying them, several insurance-industry experts said that there really is no easy way to see the car-deer accident or claims data by car model or vehicle type.

The new IIHS survey raises a good point. While accident investigators, insurance companies, and salivating litigators might want to investigate every nut and bolt of the vehicles that were in an accident for manufacturing or design defects, very little attention is paid to car-deer collisions and how they might be avoided on a more systematic level. What little serious research that does exist regarding strategies to avoid deer collisions is typically in the vein of the many limited-scope studies referred to in the report, and difficult to draw generalizations on.

And to do this, standardizing the accident data should be a priority, experts say, but getting the states (with conflicting policies) to agree could prove a major headache. Let’s hope the NHTSA steps in and at least draws some guidelines for reporting so that we can find out what really works — and save lives!

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