Don't Veer for Deer

February might be the cruelest month, but October and November are two of the most dangerous months -- especially in upper Midwest states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.  There, cars encounter deer in an intimate and sometimes deadly way in staggering numbers.  While the uninitiated warning against collisions might seem as useful as warning against meteor showers or being struck by errant bowling balls, the fact is that there are an estimated 1.75 million white-tailed deer in the state of Michigan alone, and neighboring states are home to similar numbers of the animals.

Because car-deer crashes in Michigan cause at least $130 million in damage annually, or an average of $2,000 per vehicle incident, Governor Jennifer M. Granholm has proclaimed October as "Michigan Car-Deer Crash Safety Awareness Month." The Michigan Deer Crash Coalition (MDCC), which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, has a simple-to-remember piece of advice for motorists driving in areas populated by deer this fall. The safety message is "Don't Veer for Deer!"  And while it may seem counterintuitive to intentionally refrain from trying to avoid a collision with one of the animals, there is a good reason for the recommendation.

"Statistics show that most motorist deaths and injuries occur when drivers swerve to avoid hitting the deer and strike a fixed object, such as a tree or another vehicle," said coalition Chairman Jack Peet of AAA Michigan. "No one wants to see a deer destroyed, but striking the animal is often the safest action."

While in 2005 Michigan experienced a reduction in the number of total car-deer crashes, the number is still staggering. According to the Michigan State Police Criminal Justice Information Center, there were 58,741 deer-vehicle crashes in 2005. While that's down from the 62,707 crashes reported in 2004, it is still a sobering statistic. More than 17 percent of all crashes in Michigan involve deer. Last year, nine motorists were killed and 1,700 were injured as the result of a car-deer crash, compared to three killed and 1,647 injured the previous year. Further, since many crashes with the animals go unreported, the actual crash numbers are much higher.

Nearly half of all collisions with deer crashes occur in the October-to-December mating season when deer are very active (so to speak).  Car-deer collisions spike again in spring, when the season's first grass appears along highway rights-of-way, luring unsuspecting white-tails.

"Deer are often seen calmly feeding near highways, but when they panic, they may appear in front of your windshield in no time at all," said Penney Melchoir, Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division field coordinator. "Drivers must be prepared -- look for other deer following the first in a line and keep an eye for deer doubling back once they have moved out of a traffic lane."

If you live in the "Deer Belt" and are driving in a rural or even suburban area, you should "think deer" whenever you are behind the wheel, and drive defensively, as if a deer can appear at any moment -- because it can. And all motorists should remember to always fasten their safety belts. Safety belts often make the difference in surviving a serious crash, and hitting a deer can result in a serious crash.

Based in Cleveland, auto journalist Luigi Fraschini writes frequently about safety issues.