It's dark and you're driving along the familiar road from or en route to work. Suddenly a large brown object appears mere yards ahead of you. Wham! You collide with it. Congratulations. You're one of legions of Americans who are involved in car-deer accidents each year. Studies by the auto insurance industry reveal car/deer accidents cause an estimated $1.1 billion dollars per year.
With the regular deer season in the Southern Zone just over a week away, if you believe hunters are the primary takers of deer each fall, you'd be partially correct. What you'd be missing is the fact motorists kill almost as many.
Nationally, almost 20 percent of the deer population is killed each year by vehicles, according to the National Safety Council. In New York State the number of car-deer accidents has nearly doubled since 1980. The NYS 2005 Highway Safety Report shows between 37,000 and 50,000 car-deer accidents occurred in New York. The Chenango County Highway Department's records show 383 deer carcasses, or 29.48 tons, were picked up from highways under its jurisdiction last year. So far this year, that figure is 347 deer or 23 tons. A Cornell study has indicated only one in six car-deer accidents are reported. Are all these accidents because we have more deer, or because more drivers drive less defensively? Over the past three decades, the state's deer population has remained upwards of a million, but the demographics of where deer densities are highest has changed, as have human densities and driving characteristics. As rural agricultural areas, such as ours, have changed from active farmland to brushy habitat, deer densities have decreased there as the primary food sources created by farming decreased. New construction of rural residences, often in cluster configurations, on what was once farmland has increasingly become the preferred habitat range for deer, offering them both better food and security from hunting. Car-deer accident rates are much higher in these areas than in the more rural, lightly inhabited residential areas.
The change in roadside flora characteristics that has seen once active pasturelands and cultivated fields abandoned, and allowed to grow unchecked, has become a factor. Deer that were once visible well off the road are now often hidden by roadside flora. And unless the deer are facing toward the oncoming vehicle, and the driver spots their eyes reflecting in the headlights, he or she may never know they're there until they appear on the road.
As more people have opted to live in the rural or outer suburban areas, the need for wider and paved roads has also increased. Roads that were once dirt are now paved and widened to provide better driving conditions for the increased number of drivers that regularly use them. And since many of these fall under the 55mph speed limit, vehicles may now zip along at a much faster clip than when the roads were narrow dirt. This increases the chances of a vehicle colliding with a deer that suddenly enters the road. Whether we like to admit it or not, people are driving faster today than ever before. On many paved roads right here in Chenango County, it's increasingly common to see drivers doing 65 or better, and at that speed, being able to slow or stop to avoid colliding with a deer that pops into the road 100 feet ahead is almost impossible. How many times have we read where a driver left the road "to avoid hitting a deer?" Maybe the speed the driver was doing also had something to do with that...