TCS Daily

Oh, Deer!

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - August 17, 2004 12:00 AM

LIGONIER, PA -- Where I live, here in the mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania, everybody has a car vs. deer story. Most anyone who has driven for any length of time has hit a deer, been hit by a deer, or had a near miss.

Then, of course there are the "thumpers" -- that's the sound they make when your tire throws them up against the inside of your fender. These small animals litter area roads as mute, flattened evidence of their encounters with various vehicles.

I love that television ad where the two squirrels high-five each other in the middle of a rural road after one of them has just caused a car to swerve off the road and presumably hit a tree. But the fact is small animals fare badly in the majority of cases when they come up against rolling iron. It's simple physics.

All this came to mind the other day when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta, announced that animals are to blame for 26,000 auto injuries each year on the nation's roads. About 200 people are killed annually in accidents involving either hitting an animal or swerving to avoid one.

In 90 percent of these accidents deer are involved. The other 10 percent are caused by stray cows, the occasional bear, a fair number of dogs, and assorted raccoons, squirrels, rabbits and other small animals.

This is hardly big news to anyone living in a rural area. There isn't really very much you can do about it. Technological answers are limited. It is not uncommon here to see cars equipped with deer whistles -- small "sonic generators" about the size of a thimble -- which use air movement from the moving car to make an ultrasonic signal that humans can't hear but deer can. These have been around for years (kind of a variation on the ultrasonic dog whistle) but claims that they actually prevent collisions by warning deer of a car's approach are difficult to verify. Dead deer don't talk, and, come to think of it, neither do live ones.

The various "traffic radar" devices now showing up in some luxury vehicles may be able to give drivers a little more warning of a deer in the road at night or in a fog, but the experiences of most drivers I have talked to indicate that deer/car accidents usually happen in an unforeseen instant when a deer suddenly jumps into the path of a speeding car or directly into the side of the car itself.

The CDC urges us to "drive responsibly and make sure that you are buckled up." They also suggest building "tall fences" at known deer crossing areas. Around here, where you see deer just about every day, you come to appreciate how high they can jump, even from a standstill. A six or seven-foot fence is not proof against a deer.

Another CDC idea: building special "underpasses" for deer to use. The CDC admits this is not an economically viable solution (it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars) and I'm not sure exactly how you get deer to use an underpass.

In a world of problems, deer/auto encounters, it seems to me, are a pretty low level problem. However, automobile insurers have been concerned for a long time. They estimate that there are a half million auto/deer "encounters" every year, costing insurers an average $2000 per accident. And as for the CDC, well its "motor vehicle injury prevention team" needs to keep busy. But folks around here just live with the low-level deer "menace." There are certain stretches of road where, when driving at night, you just know better than to "outrun your headlights."

The real problem is the burgeoning deer herd. Back in the 1980s the American deer population was estimated at 10 million. Now there are an estimated 25 million deer and many of them are hanging out in suburban areas. We often saw deer on our street or in nearby areas when we lived in the Maryland suburbs close in to Washington, D.C.

But in a world where blame must be laid and culprits found, a Connecticut-based organization called Friends of Animals (FoA) has placed the blame for deer/car accidents on, guess who?


Of course!

According to FoA's "thorough analysis of data" hunters cause an increase in deer/car accidents by scaring deer into "incautious" behavior. In the words of FoA's president Priscilla Feral (that's her name; I'm not making this up) hunters serve as "agents provocateurs, who, by their presence and predatory activities in deer habitat, incite the deer to incautious, evasive behavior resulting in collisions."

The proof, according to Feral, lies in the fact that most deer/car collisions occur in the months of October-December, which is hunting season.

Well, gee, around here we know that the period October-December also happens to be mating season, Priscilla. Deer have a lot on their minds during mating season, and cars are way low on the list.

When deer overrun an area they drive farmers crazy eating crops. And now suburbanites are complaining about the job deer do on their flowers and vegetable gardens. They are lustful vegans, who, like sharks, seem good at two things -- breeding and eating.

Thinning out the growing deer population by automobile -- one encounter at a time -- is an expensive and dangerous way of attacking the problem -- much more dangerous than hunting. It drives up auto insurance costs, and no one gets the benefit of the deer meat, either. It ends up a rotting carcass along the road. But with the deer population out of control, and deer hunting being painted in darker and darker colors by the greenizens, maybe cars will simply have to play a front-line role in performing this public service.


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