Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Deer are fearless this time of year

The deer wasn't frozen in the headlights -- it just soared across the road right in front of me, one great flying leap that would have taken it right through the windshield if I had been a few feet closer. I obviously didn't have time to grab my camera, but the picture fixed in my memory looks something like this Photoshop recreation. Just putting it together gave me the shakes again.

My 35-mile commute covers about 25 miles of highway, and this time of year is the worst. It's mating season for the deer, they're moving around a lot in search of action, and they have other things on their mind than looking both ways. It's the time of year when they also seem to have developed the ability to fly.

That's what happened last year when I was approaching the outskirts of a small town on the way home. The speed limit drops, and it's a speed trap closely monitored by the police. I had been listening to music and suddenly realized I had passed the 45 mph sign. I hit the brake a little harder than usual, because just around the upcoming curve there often is a cop with radar. Just that instant, this huge creature flew across the road in front of me, filling my field of vision. Just as suddenly it was gone, bounding off into the darkness between two houses on my right. Just another suburban deer. And if I had not slowed down that instant, it would have crashed through the windshield and into my face.

Tips on how to avoid car-deer collisions abound in the media, but accidents keep happening.
Law enforcement officials offer a lot of tips on surviving a car-deer collision. One is so contrary to natural reaction, it takes a cool head to remember it.

When it appears you are going to hit a deer, your natural reaction is to swerve to try to avoid it. That's not a good idea, law officers say. Go ahead and hit the deer. More serious accidents often occur when a driver swerves, then over-corrects and loses control of the vehicle.

That's one reason to be thinking deer as you are driving. Keeping that risk in mind will help you deal with the problem more rationally should it occur.

Better yet, the advice from law enforcement will reduce your chance of hitting a deer at all. A lot of it is common sense.

Deer travel in groups, so when you see one, remember that there probably are others nearby.

Be especially alert at dawn and dusk. Not only is visibility lower then, those are the peak movement times for deer.

Slow down near woods, parks, golf courses, streams and deer-crossing signs. The signs are posted where deer-vehicle collisions have repeatedly occurred.
I've never struck a deer, although I know many people who have, and I hope I never do. Two additional tips that seem to work for me:
1. Use your horn. For some reason, deer seem to react differently to a horn than they do to car lights. They tend to flee in the opposite direction, rather than racing across the road.

2. Slow down when you can't use your high beams. When oncoming traffic is already semi-blinding you and you turn down your high beams, there's no way you can see as far ahead as you need to avoid a collision at 65 mph. Slow down until your night vision and high beams are restored.
Madison's Capital Times had a story the other day about someone who sells a device that makes your horn even more effective by automatically pulsating it seven times a second. Click here for information. The article also contains some sobering statistics.
Dane County leads the state in reported deer-vehicle crashes with 838 accidents in 2005, according to Department of Transportation statistics. Reported crashes generally involve at least $1,000 worth of vehicular damage.

With an estimated state herd size of 1.5 million to 1.7 million deer this year, there's ample opportunity to encounter deer on the roadways, especially during the fall mating season.

Motorists struck and killed almost 39,500 deer in Wisconsin between July 1, 2005 and June 30, 2006, more than double the figure for the previous year, according to Department of Natural Resources figures.
You can't be too careful. Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving!

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