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Think Like a Deer to Avoid Crashes With Large Animals

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Deer crossing signThe most dangerous places for collisions between vehicles and wild animals are two-lane roads in rural areas with speed limits of 55 miles per hour, according to a video called “Avoiding Wildlife-Vehicle Collisions” produced by the U.S. Forest Service’s Missoula Technology and Development Center, as Stephanie Worley Firley writes on the United States Department of Agriculture’s blog. The 25-minute-long video, created to train Forest Service employees, was chosen from 12,000 entries from all 50 states and five continents as a bronze award winner for excellence in the nature/wildlife and safety categories.

Developed by Pacific Southwest Research Station wildlife biologist Sandra Jacobson, the video encourages us to think like a deer in order to avoid collisions, Firley writes. When a pedestrian is on a curb wanting to cross the street, he or she is looking for there to be no traffic. But, says the video’s narrator, it is dangerous to expect a deer to view traffic in the same way.

In the video, Dr. Karl V. Miller, professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Georgia’s School of Forestry and Natural Resources, says there are a lot of differences between how a deer perceives visually and how humans do. People move their eyes to track motion, but deer do not move their eyes, Miller says; their eyes are stationary. It would be easy for a deer to notice a vehicle moving from left to right, or right to left, in front of it, Miller says, but a deer can’t easily track movement when a vehicle is coming toward it. A vehicle approaching it almost appears to be a stationary object to a deer, he says.

In addition, Miller says in the video, a deer does not see in as much detail as a human does. Whereas a human generally would have 20/20 vision, a deer might have 20/100 or 20/200. “In other words, if a deer was going to pass his driver’s test, it would have to have corrective lenses,” he says.

In low light conditions, a deer’s narrow slit of a pupil has the ability to increase to a much larger size than our round human pupil, Miller says. As a result, a lot more light can enter into a deer’s eye, so deer have a better ability to see in such conditions, Miller says. But when a bright headlight reaches a deer’s eye, that light appears much brighter than it would to us, and can temporarily blind the deer, as a camera flash does to us. This results in the “deer-in-the-headlights look,” Miller says. He adds that whistles or other sounds have not been effective in deterring a deer from walking onto a roadway.

In western states in the winter, deer tend to be in areas with less snowfall and lower altitudes, the video’s narrator says. Major topographic features in western states funnel deer into areas like drainages and ridges, says Sandra L. Jacobson in the video. But in eastern states, where deer are more prevalent, there are long stretches of homogeneous habitat, making it difficult to know when a deer will jump out onto the road, she says. In that case, it is best to have situational awareness wherever you are driving, and plan to have an animal appear at any time. The narrator adds that it is still important, even in eastern states, to be especially vigilant around riparian areas and drainages, transitions between forests and open areas, and farm fields. It is also important to be alert when driving near vegetated medians on eastern highways, the video says.

Other risk factors for animal-vehicle collisions are around one hour before dusk and after dawn, the video says. The narrator suggests avoiding travel during those hours, but when you must be driving at that time, drive with your high beams on and look for eye shine — not to be confused with reflector posts. “If you see one deer, look for others,” the video says, “because they often travel in small groups.” The months of October and November are the most dangerous time for wildlife-vehicle collisions, and that applies to the entire country, Jacobson says in the video.

The video’s narrator says that 24-35% of all crashes on rural roads are related to animal collisions. Busy interstates tend to intimidate large animals, the video says. And single-lane roads with speed limits of less than 45 miles per hour give drivers a better chance of stopping before a collision with an animal occurs, the video says. The dilemma for drivers is that while driving slower than 45 mph decreases chances of colliding with a large animal, it increases the chances of having an accident with another vehicle if you are driving slower than the flow of traffic, the narrator says. That is because a vehicle driving slowly will result in a long line of cars and chances of unsafe passing or backup crashes, the video says. “Don’t increase your chances of a car accident in lieu of reducing your chances of a deer-vehicle collision,” the narrator says. The best way of avoiding car accidents involving deer is by limiting as many of the other risk factors as possible, the video says.

Because larger vehicles are better at protecting you if your vehicle collides with a large animal, it is especially dangerous to ride a motorcycle in areas where there could be deer or other large wild animals, the video says, especially during October and November during dusk and dawn. For every 3,000 deer-vehicle collisions, there is one human death; and for larger animals, such as moose, there is one human killed for every 1,000 crashes.

If a collision is imminent, the video says not to honk your horn, as that can confuse the animal, which might run the wrong way, worsening the situation, the narrator says. Miller says to apply your brakes and slow down, to give the animal time to make a decision about what it will do. If there is no time to brake, and you are wondering whether to hit the animal or swerve, the narrator says it is best to go ahead and hit the animal, even though that can be emotionally very difficult. “Do not swerve sharply, because the consequences may be even more severe if you roll your vehicle, hit a large tree, or face a head-on collision,” the video says.  If you hit an animal, maintain control of your vehicle with both hands on the steering wheel, the narrator says. If you can, and no one is behind you, firmly activate your brakes without losing control or going into a skid, the narrator says. If you can relieve pressure on the brakes right before you hit the animal, do so. “The nose of the car will come back up so the animal is less likely to come through the windshield.”

You can see the video here:

Image by Tom Maughan


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