Illustration by John Bre...
Updated. For the first three and half decades of my riding career, I was oblivious to the hazards presented by deer and other animals on the road. Even though I ride frequently in the mountains, went to college in Wisconsin, and have ridden tens of thousands of miles in deer country, much it after dark, I had encountered one elk and a few cattle actually on the road and seen one deer. Animals simply weren't a consideration for me until one night in the coastal mountains of Southern California, when a smallish mule deer leapt down onto the road from an embankment on the right. I hit it at about 40 mph just as it landed, punting it across the road and down a steep cliff on the opposite side, fortunately without crashing. Around that same time, a coworker from Sport Rider hit another deer at a higher speed, splitting the deer in two and crashing. The rider walked away mostly because he was wearing good protective gear and a lot of it.
Since then, I've had increasingly frequent deer encounters, so far without further contact. In November, riding on a road in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains just after the sun went behind them, I was almost hit by a deer bouncing off the front of an oncoming SUV. The other driver and I both stopped and pondered about how to stop the suffering of the animal, but it died before he could carry out the idea of running over its head. Less than a mile up the road, I came upon two more deer simply standing on the road. They didn't move as I approached, and I stopped about 50 feet away. After I honked and revved my engine, they finally got off the road. Months before (fortunately in a car), I had encountered a big mountain lion on the same road after dark. It seemed quite willing to challenge the car for the road and was in no hurry to leave, even when we stopped 20 feet away.
The deer detector "sees" animals...
The deer detector "sees" animals using infra-red sensors.
Anyway, during the last few years, my awareness of animals, particularly deer, has risen, as has my interest in avoiding them. This seems to have coincided with a general increase in the deer population nationwide and a resulting rise in collisions with deer. People spend more time in rural areas, since more people are moving out of cities. There is a deer-vehicle crash every eight minutes in Michigan. Of course, deer aren't only animals vehicles hit. During the past year, I have read of motorcycle collisions involving moose, bison, cattle, dogs, and other animals, but deer are the most common impact points. In a few areas, deer collisions outnumber all other accidents. About 150 Americans a year die as a result of 700,000 collisions with deer, which reportedly cause over a billion dollars in damage.
A lighted sign warns motorists...
A lighted sign warns motorists of the animal's presence.
The DVCIC site also looks at a number of strategies for reducing deer-vehicle collisions (DVCs) including fencing, roadside repellants, reducing deer population through hunting and other means, managing roadside vegatation, in-vehicle warning systems, alternatives to road salting (which attracts deer), and other ideas, but there is not a lot of encouraging information
At the moment there is no clear method of avoiding those accidents short of staying at home under the bed. (And one Minnesota reader has told me that he simply does not ride at night because of the deer issue.) One company has created a deer-detector that flashes lights when deer are sensed near that section of road, but the device is new and probably too costly for widespread deployment. Roadside reflectors seem to have some promise, perhaps because the reflected light causes deer to freeze before they reach the road. Deer whistles? So far, there isn't much research that supports their use, but they don't hurt or cost much either. There is a discussion of the studies that have looked at deer whistles on this page, which found some that even indicate a slightly negative effect from whistles.
I started doing research and asking people who drive a lot at night in deer country for their advice. Some of it was familiar, but I picked up some fresh pointers too.
Deer travel in groups. One deer means there are probably more, so even if the one you see is off the road and going away, slow way down immediately. Heed deer-crossing signs, particularly in the seasons and times of day when deer are active. Slow down, use your high beam, and cover the brakes. The Wisconsin DOT says that deer collisions peak in October-November, with a smaller peak in May-June. Such crashes between April and August are most likely to occur between 8 pm and midnight. Between November and January, 5 to 10 pm were the danger times. Additional good, powerful driving lights are worth their weight in gold on a deserted road at night. Alternatively, fit a bulb with a 100-watt high-beam. Noisea horn, revving your engine, etc.may drive deer away. (Don't count on it though. My son and I recently went out to plink not far from that Sierra Nevada road, and after we set up, a doe and fawn appeared perhaps 30 yards away between us and our targets. I figured they would be gone at the first gunshot, so we fired it in a different direction. They didn't move then or when we fired into the tree above them several times, dropping debris around them. We finally had to shoo them away.) Flashing your headlights may break the spell that seems to cause deer to freeze. Deer and other wild animals are designed to be hard to see. Aside from the flickering white tail of some species or reflection from an eye, they simply disappear. However, this absence of reflected light can also tip you off. A "hole" in a white fence or wall or "missing" roadside reflectors at night might be an animal. A reflector that "blinks" might also indicate an animal passing between you and it.
A bison threw a Harley and...
A bison threw a Harley and its rider into the air when the rider tried to pass through a herd crossing a road.
Don't challenge large animals by approaching them. A buffalo, moose, elk, mountain lion, bear, or large deer might attack to drive you off. Stay away and consider turning and riding farther away. A rider and his Harley were thrown high into the air by a bison last summer when he tried to ride through a herd crossing a road. If an animal has been injured, stay away. It may attack or injure you unintentionally if it comes to and tries to escape. If a collision appears imminent, do not swerve. Braking hard right up to the point of impact is good, but you want to be stabilized if you do collide, which will give you the greatest chance of remaining upright. If riding in a group, spread out. This will keep one rider who hits a deer from taking other riders down with him. Wear protective gear. As with other crashes, no one plans to hit an animal. The only way to be ready when it happens is to be ready on every ride. Wearing a helmet for a relaxing evening ride may seem unnecessary, since you are taking it easy, but the deer won't care. A few years ago, a rider told me of a deer leaping over him and catching him hard enough with a hoof to leave a significant gouge in the side of his helmet and wrench his neck a bit. That rider was very pleased he was wearing a good helmet. A collision with a deer that leaves you lying injured or unconscious in the road is also one of those occasions when you will appreciate reflective material on your gear.
A reader, Joe Cyr, of New Hampshire offered the following insights after he saw this story:
On June 26, 2003, I lost a friend, Eugene Levesque, to a moose-motorcycle collision between Van Buren and Grand Isle, Maine on US Route 1. His wife was critically injured but survived. I believe that he was third or fourth in a group of five motorcycles traveling below the speed limit at night.
There is no panacea for alleviating this problem. Short of not driving these roads at night or riding at speeds less than 35 to 40 mph, only with an extremely heightened sense of awareness can one react in time to minimize the effects of a collision.
A moose can weigh over 1200 pounds. Their coloration "sucks" the light and they appear invisible in the dusk and night hours. Unlike deer, rarely does one see the reflection of their eyes in a headlight beam. They usually react to oncoming vehicles by jumping in the road and quartering away from the vehicle across the road so their fur absorbs the light rather than reflect across the guard hairs on their coat. If you see their fawn colored haunches (the insides of their back legs), then you better be at a dead stop because you are much too close for comfort.
Interesting fact about automobile-moose collisions: if the driver never sees the moose and hits it at full speed there is rarely a fatality. The automobile front end clips the legs and the moose either rolls off the roof of the car or barely touches the car depending on the speed of the collision and the height of the car. If the driver sees the moose and panic brakes, the moose usually goes through the windshield, causing severe injury or death.
Some points to keep in mind:
On hot muggy nights when there are a lot of mosquitoes, moose and deer head out of the woods to escape the fly bites. If you have a thick film of bugs on your eye protection, clue in that the animals are getting eaten alive and their situational awareness is impaired.
If you are driving at night and see the oncoming headlights "twinkle", that is probably a moose or a deer legs intersecting the headlight beams. They are rarely alone and may be with young. Slow down and keep your eyes open.
During the spring time, deer and moose congregate along side of roads to lick the salt applied during the winter months to control road ice.
Watch for dips in a road where the surrounding land is swampy or a brook crosses under the road. These are usually trails used by animals. Transportation departments are getting better at labeling animal crossings but usually as a result of tragic animal collisions at that location in the past. It is a sobering thought to realize the price that was paid for the DOT to incur the expense of installing and maintaining that sign.
Small animal motorcycle collisions with raccoons and porcupines can also be deadly. A fast-moving motorcycle with the brakes locked is a recipe for disaster. A glancing hit can veer a motorcycle off the road. These animals are low and have a round body structure that doesn't "crush," causing the body to roll under an undercarriage. You will have to replace those tires after striking a porcupine!
Finally, there is the skunk. You don't want to slow down close to one, they will let you know that they are not happy that you invaded their personal space.
Deer accidents continue to increase. Let's leave them for the cars.