How to avoid hitting deer when on the road, and watching those tailgaters

Oct 15 2009 - 5:08pm

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- It's been said that lightning never strikes the same place twice, but it came close one Monday morning on state Highway 11 east of Karlstad, Minn.

I hit my first deer with a car one October afternoon nearly 20 years ago along this same stretch of highway. The deer had bolted out of tall grass along the edge of the ditch at warp-speed, and the encounter unfolded so quickly I didn't have a chance to hit the brakes.

Next thing I knew, the grill of my car looked like a metal accordion.

So, I was on full alert that Monday morning while driving back to Grand Forks from the family getaway in northwestern Minnesota. The sun hadn't been up very long, the air was cool and crisp, and it was prime time for deer to be on the move.

Complicating matters was the tailgater who'd been riding my bumper the past several miles and for some reason was reluctant to pass me.

This could get interesting, I thought, keeping a wary eye on the car in my rear-view mirror. If a deer bolted out of the woods, my best efforts to avoid hitting it could easily result in the tailgater plowing into me from behind.

The thought had barely crossed my mind when, sure enough, two does came running out of the brush from the north and across the highway about 100 feet in front of me. I'd seen them soon enough to slow down a bit and honk the horn, but the tailgater had to veer into the other lane to avoid hitting me from behind.

"What-if" scenarios aside, deer and drivers escaped the incident unscathed. The tailgater finally passed me a few miles later without making eye contact, perhaps to avoid the "laser gaze" I threw in the car's direction.

The experience was more jolting than a cup of strong coffee. But it served as a reminder of the increased risk that motorists face of hitting a deer in the next couple of months.

Ironically, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources issued a news release saying the same thing.

According to estimates from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, more than 20,000 deer-vehicle accidents are reported annually in Minnesota, and the DNR estimates only one-third of the accidents are reported. Drivers in North Dakota reported 3,656 deer collisions in 2008, according to the North Dakota Department of Transportation.

The numbers aren't surprising, given the relatively high populations of deer on both sides of the Red River.

The DNR news release recommends drivers slow down after sundown and before sunrise, when deer are most active. But this time of year, hunters can play a role in moving deer during daylight hours, as well.

Like the deer I hit east of Karlstad all those years ago, some car-deer collisions can't be avoided. But drivers can take a few precautions to minimize the risk of injury or property damage, the DNR says, and offers these tips:

--Don't count on deer whistles or deer fences to deter deer from crossing roads in front of you. Stay alert.

--Watch for the reflection of deer eyes and for deer silhouettes on the shoulder of the road. If anything looks slightly suspicious, slow down

--Slow down in areas known to have a large deer population; where deer-crossing signs are posted; places where deer commonly cross roads; areas where roads divide agricultural fields from forest land; and whenever in forested areas between dusk and dawn.

--Don't swerve to avoid a deer because that can cause you to lose control, possibly striking another vehicle, tree or object.

--Deer do unpredictable things. Sometimes, they stop in the middle of the road when crossing. Sometimes, they cross and quickly re-cross back from where they came; sometimes, they move toward an approaching vehicle. Assume nothing. Slow down; blow your horn to urge the deer to leave the road. Stop if the deer stays on the road; don't try to go around it.

And it's not mentioned on the list, but there's one other precaution I'd add after that Monday experience.

DON'T TAILGATE!

If I'm going to kill a deer, I'd prefer to do it with my rifle.

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