Is it my imagination or are there an awful lot of deer carcasses on the side of the road these days? I recently posed this question to my teenage son while he was driving us to a doctor’s appointment. “I hadn’t really noticed,” he said with disinterest. Not one to forgo a teachable moment, I immediately followed that up with, “Do you know what to do if you see a deer in or near the road?” He answered in typical 16-year-old fashion, “Duh... stop.” “But what if you can’t stop?,” I retorted back. “I don’t know,” he said in exasperation.
There are more than 15,000 deer-vehicle crashes in New Jersey every year, notes the New Jersey Deer Vehicle Crash Coalition, and now through December is peak deer season (yes, Bambi is searching for his mate). According to State Farm Insurance, November is the mother of all months, accounting for 18 percent of deer-vehicle collisions. But the problem isn’t confined to the last three months of the year. A State Farm study also found that over a recent 12-month period motorists across the nation hit 1.09 million deer (remarkably this represents a 7 percent reduction over the previous year) resulting in $3.5 billion in property damage. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), meanwhile, estimates that 150 people are killed and another 10,000 injured annually as a result of deer-vehicle crashes.
So that begs the question, do you know what to do if you encounter a deer when you’re behind the wheel? And if you have a teen driver in the house, have you talked about this? The first rule of thumb is to slow down if you see a deer, because it’s highly likely there’s more than one. After all, deer like teens tend to travel in packs. Also, take the deer crossing signs (yellow background with a black silhouette of a leaping dear) seriously; they’re posted in active deer crossing areas for a reason.
If a crash with a deer is unavoidable, don’t swerve. Instead brake firmly and stay in your lane. Since many deer crashes occur on two-lane roads with no median, swerving into the other lane could result in a head-on collision if a vehicle is traveling in the opposite direction. If you swerve toward the shoulder of the road, it could result in a run-off-the road crash and a collision with a fixed object, such as a tree or pole. In either case, the outcome could be deadly.
Insurance industry experts also recommend braking over swerving to avoid hitting a deer or other animal in the road. Why? Any damage caused to your vehicle as a result of swerving is covered under the collision portion of your insurance policy, rather than the comprehensive portion which is typically the case in a deer-motor vehicle crash. Additionally, the collision could be viewed as an at-fault claim, which can negatively impact your insurance rates.
It’s also important to bear in mind that two-thirds of deer-vehicle crashes occur between 6 and 9 p.m., the time when deer are the most active. Keeping headlights clean and aligned as well as using high beams whenever oncoming traffic isn’t present will help increase your visibility. And it goes without saying, that everyone in the vehicle should be properly restrained in seat belts and/or car or booster seats. If you have to stop quickly because of a deer or for any reason, your seat belt will keep you firmly secured in the passenger compartment reducing your risk of injury.
In the event you do hit a deer and it doesn't flee, stay inside your vehicle. Don’t attempt to move the injured animal. While you’re sure to be shaken up (I certainly was after a buck literally ran right into the driver-side of my car several years ago while on my way home from work), the deer is likely to be frightened and may thrash around. You don’t want to be impaled by a set of antlers or injured by flying deer hooves. Call 9-1-1 and request police assistance (be sure to alert the dispatcher if you need medical assistance as well). Once the officer arrives, request that he file a police report, which you may need to submit to your insurance company.
A final note on deer crashes, distraction and inattention, followed by speeding and failure to yield are the top three reasons (in that order) why New Jersey teen drivers crash. But encounters with deer and other animals also made the list. While “animals in the roadway” contributed to approximately 1.5 percent or 900 teen crashes annually between 2006-2009, ensuring that your teen driver knows what to do in the event he comes face to face with a deer, might just save his life.