Motorists should watch for deer on state roads
By Charles Ruth, SCDNR Big Game Program Coordinator
When deer are sighted well ahead of the vehicle, sounding the horn several times, flicking headlights (if no oncoming traffic is present), and reducing the vehicle’s speed are recommended.
Motorists throughout the state need to be constantly aware of roaming white-tailed deer. Despite a persistent rumor, neither the S.C. Department of Natural Resources nor any other state agency will compensate motorists for injuries or damages resulting from deer collisions. Besides practicing safe and defensive driving techniques, each motorist should carry adequate collision and comprehensive insurance.
As the state’s human population increases and more people move to the country, which increases commuting traffic, increases in deer-human encounters should be expected.
The S.C. Department of Public Safety reported approximately 2,400 deer-vehicle collisions in 2016, similar to figures from the last few years. These figures are lower than those reported in the late 1990s when the incidence of deer-vehicle collisions seemed to peak in the state. However, this decline may have more to do with changes in reporting criteria or lack of reporting for minor damages than with an actual reduction in collisions. Although deer-vehicle collisions are an issue in South Carolina, the state is in a much better position than most states, particularly states in the Northeast and upper Midwest. Many states have 30,000-50,000 deer-vehicle collisions annually.
Sound deer management through regulated annual harvest is the most effective way of curtailing deer-vehicle collisions, and following some common sense rules for driving defensively in deer country will make the trip safer. White-tailed deer are masters at evading predators. However, these same predator-avoidance instincts often cause deer to bolt in front of oncoming vehicles.
When deer are sighted well ahead of the vehicle, sounding the horn several times, flicking headlights (if no oncoming traffic is present), and reducing the vehicle’s speed are recommended. If deer are sighted only a short distance in front of the vehicle, these same collision-avoidance techniques – horn and flicking lights – may spook the deer into running across the road, thereby increasing the likelihood of a collision. So in that case, it’s best to just slow down.
Always anticipate another deer if you see one or more crossing the highway and do not expect the deer to get out of the way. Fortunately, deer-vehicle collisions typically involve damage to the vehicle rather than human injuries. Most serious injuries occur when the motorist looses control of the vehicle and hits an immovable object like a tree or embankment while attempting high-risk maneuvers to avoid a deer. If a collision with a deer is imminent, it is best to hit the deer rather than risk losing control of the vehicle.
Motorists should understand that deer crossing signs – diamond-shaped signs bearing the silhouette of a deer – mark a stretch of road where deer have been hit previously. However, these signs do not mark specific deer trails. Deer may frequently cross for several miles where the signs are posted. Studies show about 45 percent of deer-vehicle collisions occur in roughly a 60-day period that corresponds with the deer-breeding season. In South Carolina, the deer-breeding season, or “rut,” is generally during the months of October and November.
Deer movements – and vehicle collisions – are at their peak during the breeding season in October and November. Also, most vehicle collisions occur near sun-up and sun-down because deer tend to move more during these times. Unfortunately, these are also the times that most humans commute to work in their vehicles.
Pay attention to changes in habitat types along the highway. The zone between habitat types is a likely place for deer to cross a road. Creek bottoms and where agricultural fields meet woodlands are also prime areas for deer to cross roadways.
Rural or secondary roads rank highest in deer-vehicle accidents because of the frequent curves and narrow shoulders. Motorists often have little warning and, therefore, limited reaction time when they see deer.
South Carolina’s deer population peaked in the late 1990s, as did the number of deer-vehicle collisions. Since the year 2000, however, the estimated statewide deer population has decreased approximately 30 percent with the decline believed to be a combination of changes in habitat, high antlerless deer harvests, and coyote predation on deer fawns.
What should motorists do if they hit a deer? Report the incident to the state Highway Patrol or local law enforcement and to your insurance company. Finally, many people wonder if they can keep the deer for consumption. This it is not a problem as long as there is an incident report demonstrating that the deer was killed by a vehicle and not illegally shot.