A few days ago while driving through a residential area bordering a large field, my son and I were startled when a magnificent buck suddenly bolted from the roadside bush directly into our path. He stopped in the middle of an intersection, with breath snorting from his snout, his tail straight up and his gaze fixed to the distant forest. Standing within 30’ of our car, he appeared oblivious to our presence, and soon bounded off in a determined gait in pursuit of a mate.

The irrationality of the buck’s behavior was surprising, and a reminder of how easy it is to accidentally strike a deer or other animal while driving.

In the early 1900’s, the total deer population in the U.S. was estimated to be 500,000. Today, that estimate stands at 15,000,000. Although this population recovery has been a success in terms of wildlife management, the danger of roadside deer collisions has increased proportionally. It is estimated that each year in the United States there are 725,000 to 1.5 million wildlife-vehicle collisions (WVCs), and more than 200 people lose their lives in deer-vehicle collisions.

Defensive driving is the only way to reduce the risk of roadside wildlife collisions. And defensive driving is enhanced by the driver’s understanding of seasonal wildlife behavior and landscape characteristics which attract wildlife. Here are some basic strategies drivers can use to protect themselves and wildlife they may encounter on the roadside.

1. Become familiar with roadside characteristics which may attract wildlife.

What many of the high wildlife-collision areas have in common are physical characteristics which appeal to wildlife. Drivers can become familiar with these characteristics which give advance warning of the possible presence of wildlife on or near the road.

– Areas of good forage.

Deer are drawn to open grassy and low-bush areas for forage, especially edges of clearings where forest cover is close. Bears in autumn are preparing for winter hibernation. As their natural food sources at higher elevations becomes depleted with the onset of cold weather, they into the valley bottoms in search of food.

– Proximity to water sources.

The long dry stretch of summer leaves streams low and some water sources dried up. Wildlife will be attracted to fresh water sources in areas where creeks parallel or intersect roads, along roadside ditches which may still carry some water (and green forage), and on either side of culverts.

– Wide open, clear stretches of road.

Some studies suggest that wildlife vehicle collisions occur more than expected on clear nights, on dry road conditions and on long straight stretches. Empty stretches of road appeal to wildlife since there are fewer vehicles and less human activity. And open expanses of road may give the driver a false sense of security since there’s more visibility. But the risk to drivers is increased in open stretches of road because the car will likely be travelling faster, thus heightening the consequence of an animal impact.

2. Be extra vigilant when driving during fall and winter.

The mating season for deer takes place during October and November and the animals are responding to their natural urges and less likely to pay attention to their surroundings. Deer account for 80 per cent of collisions involving animals, and two-thirds of deer-vehicle accidents occur during October, November, and December.

In autumn, bears are in the final stages of preparing for winter hibernation. As their natural food sources at higher elevations become depleted near the end of summer, bears move into valley bottoms in search of food. This results in a heightened incidence of WVCs involving bears.

Fall is also a dangerous time on the roads because inclement weather reduces visibility and the sun rises later and sets earlier, leaving more hours of darkness when animals are active. Nighttime drivers should be alert to shining eyes in the distance ahead, or flickering of roadside reflectors or tail lights of the car ahead of you which may indicate an animal moving across the road. Use high beams when it is safe to do so.

In northern states, the end of fall is no time to let your guard down while driving. During the winter months, collisions with moose and elk reach their peak. A mature bull moose can weigh half a ton and stand 6’ tall at the shoulder, and WVCs with moose or elk often results in serious driver injury.

Although most animal collisions occur in fall and winter, spring is also high-risk as new green forage in roadside ditches attract deer and bears coming out of hibernation.

3. Dawn and dusk are peak activity times for wildlife collisions.

40% of roadside wildlife collisions occur between 7:00 pm and midnight. Deer, bear and other wildlife are active in search for food and forage during the first and last glimmers of light each day. And traffic is usually lighter during these times, so wildlife may not be deterred by other vehicles ahead of you.

4. Take extra precaution ahead of curves. Reduce speed.

When entering a curve, drivers are unable to see much of the road ahead. And animals along the roadside have less time to react to the sudden appearance of a vehicle coming out of curve. Drivers should not move the left of their lane as a preventive measure since oncoming vehicles pose a greater hazard. The best advice is to slow down and be alert to wildlife along the roadside as you drive through the curve.

5. Where you see one animal, expect others nearby.

Deer and bear usually forage in groups or with their young. If you see an animal near the roadside, slow down and be alert for another animal which may appear unexpectedly. You can honk the car horn to scare animals from the roadside, but remember that startled animals may exhibit unexpected behavior. Even if a deer sees you, it may still jump in front of your car. Or one of the group may have already crossed the road and attempt to cross back to rejoin the group. If an animal crosses safely in front of your car, proceed with caution because it may turn and try to cross back.

6. Observe silhouette animal signs and flashing roadside signs.

Many municipalities mark areas of high wildlife collisions by using yellow diamond-shaped silhouette signs. There may be no text with these signs, but the message should be clear – the animal on the sign is found in higher numbers on the stretch of road you are entering. Use extra care when driving until you see the posted notice that you are leaving the high-risk area.

7. Do a local internet search for “most frequent wildlife vehicle collision locations in (your location)”.

Although wildlife collisions may occur at any time of day and in unexpected places, there are certain areas in every region where most roadside collisions with wildlife occur. State and local police record WCVs when they occur, and some states and municipalities post this information on their websites so drivers can be forewarned. If you don’t see any information posted, contact your local police and ask if they provide notices to drivers of high-incident areas.

What to do if a wildlife collision cannot be avoided

If you are caught by surprise by a deer or other animal directly in your path, the best advice is “do not swerve to avoid the animal”, unless you are sure there are no other vehicles in the oncoming lane, no other roadside hazards, and a dry non-skid road surface condition. And have the presence of mind to check your rear view mirror before hitting the brakes, there could be a car close behind. Statistics show that more human injuries result in sudden avoidance moves by the driver than by striking the animal.

If a struck animal is alive but injured, call 911 to report it to authorities who are trained to deal with the situation. Do not attempt to tend to an injured wild animal as they can be dangerous and unpredictable.

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