Deer pose increased threat to drivers Animal-vehicle collisions on rise during breeding season

November 25, 1997|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

It was a dark and stormy night -- and Jack Groves never saw the deer until his van slammed into the animal.

"The deer just appeared, two feet in front of me," said Groves, 61, who escaped injury in the collision in a developed area of Route 100 near Ritchie Highway. "It wasn't an area where you'd expect a deer to be. I've lived here for 25 years and this is the first one I've seen."

But with the deer rutting, or breeding, season in full swing -- and with deer-vehicle collisions up 62 percent in the past five years, according to state natural resources officials -- such accidents are far from uncommon.

Last year alone, 3,110 deer-vehicle accidents were reported in Maryland, and that's only a small percentage of the actual number, said Eric Schwaab, director of the Forest, Wildlife and Heritage Service of the Department of Natural Resources.

With the state's white-tailed deer population at about 300,000 and growing, particularly in the suburbs, the herd poses an increasing danger to motorists, Schwaab said.

Though Maryland State Police do not tally accidents involving deer separately, one person was killed in a vehicle-animal collision in 1995 and more than 250 people have been injured in each of the past two years, said Capt. Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman.

Schwaab said DNR conducted a random survey of 300 Marylanders last year and found that 10 percent of those surveyed had been involved in a collision with a deer during the year.

It's a problem nationwide. Collisions with animals, particularly deer, represent more than 4 percent of all crashes in the United States and in 1995 killed 111 people, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's fatal accident reporting system.

Property damage is considerable as well. The AAA and the Insurance Information Institute estimate that at least 500,000 deer-vehicle collisions take place every year, each amounting to a $2,000 claim, according to AAA and the Insurance Information Institute.

In Maryland alone, property damage is estimated conservatively at more than $6 million a year. Groves, for example, said his van sustained $3,000 damage and will take another two weeks to repair.

The biggest problem has been in Central Maryland, where the number of deer and the number of vehicles are both increasing, Schwaab said.

"Deer thrive on the edge habitat where development has cut holes in the forest and they can get in and browse the undergrowth. The habitat is changing," he said.

Most of the information on deer-vehicle accidents is anecdotal, Schwaab said. But deer are liable to pop up in unlikely places and behave erratically.

In February, for example, two deer crashed through plate-glass windows at Marriott Hunt Valley Inn. A terrified doe led hotel staff on a chase through corridors and up to the second floor. Two other deer remained outside, in the lobby courtyard. No one was injured.

One night, along Greenspring Valley Road, near Nacirema Lane, three deer were loping along when one suddenly darted across the road in front of an oncoming car. The driver stood on the brakes and avoided a collision.

The problem can be especially bad during the rutting season, when the animals behave erratically. Officials at AAA and DNR offered these suggestions for drivers to better their odds against hitting a deer:

Observe animal crossing signs. They are usually placed in areas where accidents have occurred.

Observe speed limits to allow for reaction time if a deer appears in the headlights. Watch closely at dusk and dawn for moving deer.

Honk the horn to startle the deer. Flashing lights might cause the animal to fixate on the vehicle.

Brake to avoid hitting a deer but do not swerve, which could cause loss of control and a worse accident with another vehicle or a fixed object such as a tree.

If a motorist kills a deer, the venison may be claimed by applying for a nonhunting deer tag, said Tom Mathews, game management program manager for DNR in Cumberland. "You can't just pick it up and take it home. You must have documentation to possess deer meat," he said.

Schwaab said that DNR is trying to develop a statewide deer management plan, including expanded hunting seasons with larger bag limits; contraception; repellent chemicals; and fences.

Whatever deer-control plan is developed will have to be applied on a community-by-community basis, depending on the degree of the problem, Schwaab said. The two main factors are the number of deer an area's natural resources can handle and the social capacity -- how many deer people can tolerate.

"There is a lot of discussion about how to deal with the rising population," Schwaab said.

Pub Date: 11/25/97

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