Oh deer! Look out for animals in the roadway

DOVER — This is the time of year when motorists never know when a deer might dart out in front of their vehicle.

That’s why the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s Division of Fish and Wildlife is reminding all drivers to be extra cautious, especially when driving at night.

Shorter days are looming, especially after the time “falls back” on Nov. 6 from Daylight Savings to Standard Time, and more drivers will hit the road to go home from work at dusk.

“At the end of our work day, as we’re heading home, deer are just beginning their peak movement time,” said Emily Boyd, a deer biologist for the Division of Fish and Wildlife. “From dusk to midnight and within a few hours of sunrise are when motorists need to be especially alert and watch for deer on the road.”

Drivers coming into contact with a deer on a road in Delaware is a real possibility.

In fact, State Farm Insurance ranked Delaware as the 28th-highest deer-vehicle accident state in the country this year. That figure comes after the state’s motorists made more than 4,900 deer-vehicle collision insurance claims between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016.

The insurance company estimates that drivers in the First State have a 1-in-142 chance of striking a deer. The national average is 1-in-164.

Average property damage claims in deer-vehicle collisions run $3,995.

Many of the accidents aren’t filed with police and are only reported to insurance companies, hence, the disparity in some of the accident numbers between the two agencies.

“We know there is an increased risk of collision with deer around dawn and dusk, and also during the October to December breeding season,” said Chris Mullen, director of technology research at State Farm. “However, drivers should be engaged, alert and on the lookout at all times because you never know when you may need to react to a deer or any other obstacle that may suddenly be in your path.”

Already through September, officers from Delaware police departments have reported 984 deer-related crashes, with no fatalities, 35 personal injuries and 949 property-damage cases.

Those numbers are on the rise in October, as Delaware motorists have been involved in 166 deer-vehicle crashes reported to police, with the highest number of collisions expected to come in November.

It’s a constant battle between deer trying to survive in their natural habitat against an increasing number of commuters in the state.

“Through management actions to balance deer numbers with available natural habitat and public acceptance, Delaware’s deer population has stabilized and may be showing signs of decreasing to more sustainable levels,” said Joe Rogerson, Division of Fish and Wildlife program manager for Species Conservation and Research. “However, there are still numerous areas in the state that have excessive deer populations.

“Combine a high deer population with decreasing deer habitat and increased numbers of commuters and you have a recipe for a high number of deer-vehicle collisions.”

Last year, officers from Delaware police departments logged a statewide total of 1,791 crashes between vehicles and deer — a 5.4 percent increase from 1,699 in 2014. Last year’s crashes resulted in a pair of casualties, 63 personal injuries and 1,726 property-damage cases.

Like most other states, Delaware’s vehicle-deer crash season hits its peak between October and December, when at least half of all deer-vehicle collisions occur.

“Fall is mating season for deer, also known as the ‘rut,’” Ms. Boyd said. “In Delaware, the rut usually begins in early November. Because of this, deer are more active, with bucks single-mindedly pursuing does — sometimes right into the path of your car.”

A collision with a deer can be fatal, considering the average white-tailed male deer in Delaware weighs around 130 pounds, with larger bucks tipping the scales at 180 pounds or more.

Hitting an animal that size can cause serious and expensive damage to a vehicle, injure a driver and his or her passengers, or set off an accident involving other motorists.

DNREC officials warn not to touch or get too close to an animal that has been struck by a vehicle.

“A frightened and wounded deer can cause serious injury to a well-meaning person trying to ‘help,’” Ms. Boyd said. “You could be bitten, kicked or even gored by a buck’s antlers.

“It’s safer to keep your distance and wait for authorities to arrive.”

Driving tips

To avoid collisions with deer:

• Drive attentively.

• Turn headlights on at dawn and dusk and keep your eyes on the road, scanning the sides of the road as well as what’s ahead of you. When there is no oncoming traffic, switch to high beams to better reflect the eyes of deer on or near the roadway. To reduce your risk of injury in a collision, always wear your seatbelt.

• Be especially aware of any distractions that might take your eyes off the road, even if only momentarily, such as cellphones, adjusting the radio, eating or passenger activities.

• Watch for “Deer Crossing” signs that mark commonly traveled areas and be aware that deer typically cross between areas of cover, such as woods or where roads divide agricultural fields from woods.

• If you see a deer crossing the road ahead, slow down immediately and proceed with caution until you are past the crossing point. Deer usually travel in groups, so if you see one deer, there are likely to be others.

• Slow down and blow your horn with one long blast to frighten deer away. Do not rely on devices such as deer whistles, deer fences and reflectors to deter deer, as these devices have not been proven to reduce deer-vehicle collisions.

• Do not swerve to miss a deer — brake and stay in your lane. Losing control of your vehicle, crossing into another lane, hitting an oncoming vehicle or leaving the roadway and hitting another obstacle such as a tree or a pole is likely to be much more serious than hitting a deer.

• If you hit a deer, stop at the scene, get your car off the road if possible and call police. Do not touch the animal or get too close.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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