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How to Avoid Deer Car Collisions on Rural Roads

Deer and vehicleColliding with a deer in your car is not an experience I recommend. But in most cases, it's entirely avoidable if you keep in mind 5 simple tips. Except in my case. Here's that story.

In November of 2009 I was driving my son to his carpool on a cold, rainy, rather dark morning in my teensy, tiny little car (picture 6 inches off the ground and no front end ... modern little gas sipper).

There's this weird corner just down the road from us on the highway that's a 90 degree turn going uphill and banked oddly. As I entered the turn, and accelerated slightly to get us up and over the hill, something caught my eye at the right bumper - a deer coming up and out of the deep ditch.

With no shoulder on the road (and I mean none), neither the deer, nor we, had a chance. It all happened so fast.

You know those moments that are etched in your memory forever? The ones that no matter what you do, they never go away? This was one of those moments.

All I remember is the deer literally flying through the air, across the road, and into the ditch. And I'm sitting in a tiny, black, disabled car on a dark morning in a blind corner frequented by large, more often than not fast moving industrial vehicles (think fully loaded logging trucks). And my son was in the back seat.

We needed to get to a safe spot, and fast.

The car was barely running, but I managed to get it up and over the hill to a spot where there was a tiny bit of shoulder. Then it died completely.

After I stopped freaking out that I'd just hit and likely killed another living creature in a very horrible way, I got out to inspect the damage. And I was shocked.

The entire front driver's side of the car was destroyed. The deer must have jumped a the last millisecond and missed the passenger side. A couple of inches higher on that tiny hood and the deer would have come right through the sloped windshield.  Chances are I wouldn't be writing here today. To say I was lucky is an understatement.

I called my parents to see if they could come pick up my son to get him to school, then tried to figure out who to call next. Police? Conservation officer? I hadn't a clue. A few guys stopped going the opposite direction to ask if I needed assistance (thank you, kind people!), and finally one stopped who was a police officer in the city and told me to just call 911 and they'd take it from there. So that's what I did.

My dad arrived about 20 minutes later and went to check on the deer - it wasn't in the ditch, which was very bad, as he was obviously somewhere in the bush, injured. The police arrived next, followed by the tow-truck driver. While I was making arrangements for my car to be towed to a local body shop, my dad and the officer went back to attempt to find the deer. They did locate it - a very small, young buck, lethally injured, a few metres in the bush back on the same side of the road it was coming from when it jumped into us. Its front right leg and shoulder were shattered.

I cried some more...

The police officer wouldn't enter the bush to dispatch the animal (said it was a 'footwear safety issue' - he was wearing his street issue shoes... which made me wonder what he'd have done if there was a perpetrator involved he had to give foot chase to, but that's a post for someone else's blog). So we were left with a badly injured animal in the bush, and no way to put it out of its misery. We couldn't do it, because it's illegal to shoot a deer out of season without a tag in an area not designated for hunting, even in an emergency situation like this. Which I think is crazy, but the law is not up to me.

So we called the conservation officer, who is legally able to deal with these sorts of situations, but he was unable to come for at least 2 hours, as he was on in another community on another call. So while I took over dealing with the aftermath in terms of insurance, notifying my employer I'd be off most of the day, and getting my car assessed, my father very kindly took over dealing with this poor animal. Eventually the conservation officer showed up and put the poor creature out of its misery. Just so, so sad.

5 Simple Tips

We just drove 400 km on highways well frequented by big wildlife - most specifically deer - so you can imagine this was on my mind again. I've driven a lot around rural British Columbia, and have luckily never had another incident like this. I intend it to be the first and the last.  I've seen far too many beautiful animals killed, and people's lives impacted (and in many cases destroyed by injuries) to not proclaim this to the rooftops:  most collisions with animals are entirely avoidable.  Here are five things to keep in mind while driving rural roads and highways to dramatically reduce your chances of becoming a statistic:

  1. Drive the speed limit. It's pretty clear that the faster you drive, the less time you have to react to something stepping out on the road in front of you.  Never mind that speeding isn't all that smart to begin with, and your chances of injury and death increase every time you add a bit to your speed, but it's especially important when planning for avoiding wildlife collisions.  On our most recent trip, I was traveling slightly over the speed limit of 110 km/h, and was regularly blown past by vehicles large and small.  This is an easy one - slow down.
  2. Know in advance what sorts of wildlife frequent the area you'll be driving through and their patterns of activity. Different animals have different ways of moving through the landscape, and various reactions to approaching vehicles.  For more information on animal behaviour, take a look at this wildlife collision prevention website.
  3. Drive during daylight hours. Don't drive at dawn, dusk or at night unless you absolutely have to.  Your chances of animal impacts increase at these hours, as light levels are low, and animal activity is higher than at other times of the day.  It's difficult to see wildlife at these hours - avoid driving at these times if at all possible.
  4. Keep scanning, always scanning.  Rarely do animals come barreling full speed across the road with no warning.  It does happen (especially during the rut in the fall) but it's not common.  More likely are animals milling about the side of the road, hesitating before crossing, or coming from a few feet off the road.  You can avoid most accidents simply by scanning the roadsides as you drive and not getting distracted by conversation, music, electronic devices or exhaustion.
  5. Pay attention to the signs. In many jurisdictions, sections of road with high wildlife interaction potential have signs telling you so.  The signs are there for a reason, and it pays to heed them by upping your attention to the first four tips above.  Deer don't read signs, though, and can just as easily show up in areas without signs - it pays to know what makes good habitat so you can adjust your driving accordingly.  Here are some of common characteristics of these areas:
  • Where creeks, rivers and swamps intersect roads;
  • Where lots of green grass is growing near the roadside;
  • Where there is a fresh water source nearby; and
  • Long, wide, straight stretches of road.

The Wrap-up

In our case, I'm not sure any of the above would have helped, except possibly 'scanning', but from the vantage point of our low-to-the-ground car, a small deer coming out of a deep ditch on a blind corner with no road shoulder was virtually invisible until the last second.  I think it was unavoidable.  In a taller vehicle, I likely would have seen him in the ditch before we came upon him, and could have stopped in time, but in our tiny car, there was just no way I can see we could have missed each other.

But I learned a lot, and I hope this article will help you avoid this sort of experience.  It's not one you want in your memory.

For more information on vehicle wildlife collisions and how to avoid them, visit wildlifeaccidents.ca

Have you ever had a collision with an animal?  I'd love to hear your stories and advice in the comments below.  

*Photo source: iStockphoto.com/4FR