Deer in the headlights: Hunting, mating seasons combine to make November the worst month for animal accidents

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It was like something right out of the movies.

I was driving to work late at night on Highway 160 near Hesperus when my car’s headlights, which had been lowered for an oncoming semi, suddenly illuminated a gigantic bull elk standing still as a statue stretched across my lane with his head turned directly toward me.

The elk’s image grew larger and larger, finally filling the whole windshield just as the squeal of my locked-up brakes was trumped by a loud thud and a big bang, the sounds of the impact with the magnificent beast and the pop of the inflating air bags.

Those noises were immediately followed by another loud thump as the airborne animal landed rack first on the windshield and then bounced off while I fought to get the car under control and keep it out of the semi’s path. My one forlorn thought was that I was very probably never going to see my wife again.

Then just as suddenly, it was all over. My car, front end crushed into a perfect V, had come silently to rest diagonally across both lanes. The semi driver had pulled his rig onto the shoulder and stopped just short of running into me.

Between us lay the elk, as dead and still as I had feared I would be.

Dazed yet filled with adrenaline, I managed to stagger away from the wreckage just as another car came barreling down the road, its driver narrowly missing my smoldering car and then the elk carcass by swerving onto the other shoulder. The semi driver and I managed to push my car off the road, but the dead elk was another matter – it was far too heavy to drag.

Soon a collection of helpful people gathered. One used the winch on his SUV to pull the elk out of the traffic lanes. Another called 911 on his cell phone and then asked if I needed to use it, but my hands were shaking too badly to press the tiny buttons. And another, apparently trying to calm me down, joked that now I’d already bagged my elk for that hunting season.

But nothing seemed that funny as I gradually realized that my right arm and forehead were aching badly, wounds I later learned were caused by the deploying airbags.

A few months later, in a spooky instance of déjà vu, I had another run-in with a large ungulate above Durango West. Only this time “one of those suicidal deer,” as the responding officer put it, dashed out about 10 yards in front of my car. Again the screech of locked brakes, the loud thud of impact, the big bang of inflating airbags, and the painful blow to my right arm.

The main distinction (without much of a difference) was that I was travelling the 65-mph speed limit in the first instance, and considerably slower in the second.

Still, all things considered, I’ve been lucky, for despite my rather superficial injuries and two totaled cars, I am still alive.

Others haven’t been so fortunate.

More than 200 human deaths result from about a million deer-elk/vehicle crashes annually in the U.S., according to various sources, as well as nearly 30,000 injuries, with these numbers on the rise over the past decade. The price-tags for medical costs and property damage add up to more than a billion bucks.

All across America, roadways bear mute witness to the staggering ubiquity of the problem: Those black parallel skid marks that veer in all directions, sometimes ending in a dark red blotch and sometimes running off the shoulder or into a guard rail, tell the story: These animals are all over the roads. And their crushed remains regularly lying on the roadsides, four legs sticking stiffly skyward, graphically illustrate its magnitude.

Locally, animals – mainly deer – were the No. 1 cause of accidents investigated by the Colorado State Patrol in Montezuma, La Plata and Archuleta counties during 1999, according to the CSP, and the second- and third-highest cause in Dolores and San Juan counties respectively. In 1999, such accidents in La Plata and Montezuma counties totaled 303.

But over the past 12 months, the CSP recorded more than 500 deer/vehicle crashes the same two counties, resulting in nearly 50 injuries. (But, I’m grateful to report, no deaths.)

“We kill more deer and elk with cars than with guns,” commented Jim Duresky, an agent with Farmers Insurance Group in Durango. “From what we see in this agency, we have more people hitting deer than we do hitting other cars or a tree or a rock. It’s truly unbelievable.”

He said the problem seems to be especially prevalent in Southwest Colorado.

“It’s more particular to rural areas, especially mountainous rural areas, and it’s very particular to our area,” Duresky said. “You don’t get this as much on the Eastern Plains or in downtown Denver. It seems to be more prevalent in the southwest corner of the state than even in Breckenridge or places like that.”

He said the average accident involving a deer costs $3,000 to $4,000 in damage to the vehicle. Injuries are usually minor, unless the driver swerves to miss the animal and rolls the car.

Crashes involving elk are another matter. “If you hit an elk, you total the vehicle,” Duresky said. Because the animals stand higher than deer, when they’re hit they tend to come up onto the hood and even the roof, he said.

Fortunately, drivers hit deer far more often than they do elk.

Trooper Eric Perry, who patrols in La Plata County and has covered several deer/motorcycle fatalities, said injuries in car crashes involving animals often are caused by flying glass and air bags.

“A lot of times, though, it’s from the quick stopping – (especially) if someone’s going to hit an elk,” he added. “Or after the fact when they hit the deer, they run off the road and hit something else.”

Fall is the time of year when most animal-vehicle accidents occur, with November being the most dangerous month, statistics show. Hunting and mating seasons combine to make the animals move around a lot more, Perry said.

Deer/vehicle accidents can be devastating to the humans involved, both in terms of injuries, stress and monetary costs, but they take a great toll on the animals as well.

Scott Wait, a wildlife biologist with the Colorado Division of Wildlife in Durango, said road kill is “a significant part of mortality” among the state’s deer population.

Wait cited one study that concluded 14 percent of the mortality rate among fawns was caused by accident or trauma, and nearly half of the known deaths were attributed to road kill.

Another three-year study found 13 percent of fawn mortality and 19 percent of adult female mortality was because of collisions with vehicles.

“We don’t directly know how many road kills there are,” Wait said, “but indirectly we do use it in our population modeling, because it is one of the mortality factors in all our survival studies (of deer and elk).

“It is a significant part of the mortality that does occur.”

Road kill is directly tied to the overall deer and elk populations, he explained, which declined for most of the 1990s but have increased for the past four years. Hunting plays a large role in controlling these populations, he said.

But despite the magnitude of the problem, effective methods for reducing the number of collisions involving deer and elk are surprisingly few.

Short of drastically reducing deer and elk populations – something that neither hunters nor wildlife aficionados want – the solutions range from low- to high-tech, none of them perfect.

While some methods appear somewhat effective in reducing the carnage, other commercially profitable gadgets have proven worthless, according to studies.

The so-called “deer whistle” is supposed to repel animals – deer, elk, moose and dogs – by producing certain ultrasonic pitches that cause them to flee or freeze. But, according to an article by Leonard R. Askhham written for Washington State University’s cooperative extension, the “animal-warning device” simply doesn’t do its ballyhooed job.

“The state police in Ohio, after months of testing, found no significant decrease in patrol car/deer accidents after the warning devices were installed,” he noted. “In fact, more accidents were reported by the officers after the whistles were installed than before for the same period of time and stretches of highway.” Tests done in other states have reached the same conclusion.

Duresky agreed there is little to indicate deer whistles are a help. “I don’t know whether they do any good,” he said. “People have hit deer with whistles on their vehicles and without.”

Nor have highway lighting or mirrors proven to be effective deterrents, although a reflector system that has shown promise. The reflectors are placed along both sides of a road in a staggered pattern. According to the manufacturer of Strieter-Lite reflectors, several studies have shown that close to nine out of 10 accidents can be avoided by their use in high-traffic areas.

According to the product’s literature, “Deer about to cross the road into oncoming traffic see an unnatural moving red reflection from the approaching vehicle’s headlights, bouncing off the reflectors, and are deterred from crossing.” Deer’s eyes are more sensitive than humans’; therefore, drivers are not bothered by the reflectors, according to the company.

The cost is about $8,000 per mile.

More practical is lower-cost fencing that guides deer to specific crossings, preferably over- or underpasses, and infra-red detectors that activate driver-warning signals when animals are nearby.

Deer fencing has been installed in a test project on a stretch of U.S. 550 in New Mexico south of the Colorado border.

Duresky said fencing can be very effective in channeling herds to cross at underpasses. However, with so many roads in Southwest Colorado having narrow shoulders and needing resurfacing, he said it’s sometimes hard to justify spending money for deer fences.

According to Perry, U.S. Highway 160 between Cortez and Durango and Highway 550 north of Durango are two stretches where animal-vehicle crashes are very common. But they can occur anywhere.

“Just continually scan the roadway,” he advised, “but a lot of times there’s nothing you can do, especially if they’re running.”

Duresky agreed. He advises drivers to “get behind a big truck” or travel with a group of vehicles, since the combined noise seems to deter deer somewhat from coming onto the road. However, he said, there are times when accidents are unavoidable.

“When I first moved here people would say, ‘A deer hit my car,’ and I would think that was strange,” Duresky said. “But then I was driving and there was a thump and a deer ran into the side of my car. I didn’t see it.”

Perry said twilight and dawn are particularly critical times to be careful. “Most of the time right after sunset and before sunrise is when they start to move around,” he said. Duresky said his agency sees deer strikes most commonly at sunset or an hour or so after that.

Both men advised staying within the speed limits, since the faster you’re travelling, the greater the impact.

“Most of the more severe hits tend to come on 160, where it’s paved and people are going faster,” Duresky said. “Don’t push the speed limit.”

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From November 2003.