Experts search for ways to curb deer-related traffic accidents

Deer cause many traffic accidents across the nation. Methods of reducing accidents have proved either expensive or not practical. Associated Press

PIERRE, S.D. — As long as cars have been around, drivers
have had to contend with deer on the roads. And despite their best
efforts, experts have yet to devise an economical, surefire way of
preventing accidents.

Not that they haven't been trying.

Fences, whistles, warning signs and guns are just some of the
tools that have been used to try to keep the number of deer-related
traffic accidents to a minimum.

There are no official nationwide statistics on deer-related
crashes, but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates
there are 1.5 million deer-related traffic accidents in the U.S.
each year, resulting in $1.1 billion in vehicle damages.

State Farm Insurance Co., the nation's largest car insurer,
began tracking deer-crash data in 2002 and also estimates 1.5
million vehicles collide with deer annually.

Pennsylvania, with its heavily wooded areas and dense
population, has one of the highest numbers of deer-related crashes,
with about 35,000 deer carcasses removed from state roads annually,
according to a state transportation official. Other states with
large numbers of deer-related crashes are Michigan, Wisconsin,
Illinois, Ohio, Minnesota, Virginia, Indiana, Texas and Wisconsin.

Most occur in either the spring, when deer are most likely to be
on the move at dusk and dawn, and during the fall mating season.

Even in sparsely populated South Dakota, where road traffic is
typically light, one out of every three crashes involves deer. And
about 200 people die each year nationwide from deer-vehicle

In Minnesota, roadside sensors near a state park activate
flashing lights on signs to warn drivers when deer are detected.
The pilot project began this spring, and early results look good,
said Bob Weinholzer of the Minnesota Transportation Department.

"We can't do anything to control what the deer do, so this is
an attempt to control the drivers,'' he said.

Before the project's inception, an average of one deer a week
was killed in traffic accidents on the 1-mile stretch of highway
where the detection system was set up. But during its first six
weeks in operation, only one deer was killed, Weinholzer said.

"We don't know yet if it works. All we know so far is that it's
promising,'' he said.

Only fencing and animal-detection systems like the one being
tested in Minnesota have had much success in preventing road
accidents involving large animals, said Marcel Huijser, a research
ecologist for the Western Technical Institute at Montana State

Huijser, who studied more than 40 methods of reducing accidents
involving deer, moose and elk, said fencing off areas of road where
animal-related crashes frequently occur has been shown to reduce
those accidents by 87 percent.

Special overpasses and underpasses can be built to allow animals
to cross the roads, and although fence construction can be costly,
society can benefit by the number of lives saved, he said.

"It's not hard to identify road sections that would generate a
positive balance where not doing anything would result in greater
costs to both society and monetarily than fencing,'' Huijser said.

Deer-related accidents aren't just a problem for rural areas. As
cities and suburbs expand, deer are finding it harder to avoid busy

In Pierre, the state capital with about 14,000 residents,
officials are considering shooting some of the city's deer to keep
roads safer for drivers.

Ed Rodgers, operations maintenance engineer for the South Dakota
Transportation Department, said large electronic billboards will be
used along interstates this fall to warn motorists to remain alert
during deer mating and hunting seasons.

Some drivers attach special whistles to the fronts of their cars
to warn deer to get out of their way. But the whistles are of
little use and one frequency was actually more likely to cause
accidents, according to a recent study by University of Georgia

Experts say the best ways to avoid deer on roads are slowing
down at night and paying attention in areas where deer are commonly

Bruce Johnson, who owns a Pierre insurance agency, said
deer-related accidents generally cause $3,000 to $5,000 in damage
to vehicles. Most motorists escape injury in deer crashes, but not
all, he said.

"We had a girl who received facial injuries when a deer come
right through the windshield,'' he said.

Johnson said policyholders often say they could not avoid a deer
or did not see it until it was too late.

"A lot of times they say, `I didn't hit the deer. It hit me,'''
he said.