Autumn comes with many loved attributes — vibrant foliage, cooler temperatures and favorite holidays — but it also brings a sharp increase in deer-vehicle collisions.
The chances of hitting a deer doubles in the fall, according an annual study by State Farm Insurance Co., with October, November and December being the months when the highest number of deer-versus-vehicle claims are filed.
“Deer movement really heats up during late October and into early November,” said Sgt. Brad Kunkel with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office. “That’s when they move around a lot and cover a lot more ground, especially in the early morning and late evening — dusk and dawn — and obviously, early morning and evening are when everybody is going to and from work.”
Nationally, Iowa ranks fifth for the most collisions involving deer, according to the State Farm survey. The odds that drivers in the state will hit a deer are 1 in 73.
According to the Iowa Department of Transportation, there were 151 collisions involving animals in Johnson County in 2017. Of those, the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office said it fielded 37 reports of collisions that involved deer. As of August this year, the DOT said the county has seen 69 collisions involving animals, and the sheriff’s office said 21 of those involved deer. The DOT did not provide more recent numbers.
In Linn County, DOT data shows 239 collisions involved animals in 2017, and the sheriff’s office said 109 wrecks involved deer between Oct. 1 and Nov. 30 that year. This year, according to the DOT, Linn County has seen 112 animal-versus-vehicle wrecks as of August, and the sheriff’s office said 23 of those involved deer.
Kunkel said he sees the majority of deer wrecks on rural highways and “heavily-traveled corridor roads.”
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“Two factors combine to boost the chances that motorists may encounter these animals during this time of the year: mating season and hunting season,” Kunkel said. “This results in increased movement that presents hazards to deer, vehicles and drivers.”
Kunkel said “Iowa is a very deer-heavy state,” especially in the eastern and southeastern regions.
“If you look at a map of where tree and forest areas are versus open cropland in Iowa, the closer you get to Eastern Iowa, the denser the timber areas become and so you have higher deer populations, and we have higher people populations and unfortunately they cross paths,” he said.
Many drivers don’t know how to react when an animal crosses their path, Kunkel said.
“There are more people injured from car crashes when they swerve to miss the deer and run off the road,” he said. “Drivers could swerve into oncoming traffic, hitting another vehicle, or the car could go off the road and overturn or strike a tree or a pole or something else. More often than not, when you swerve, you’ll lose control of your car, where if you let off the gas and slowly start applying your brakes, while keeping car straight and hit the deer, your chances of being injured are a lot less.
“It’s human nature to want swerve or avoid hitting the deer,” he added. “It’s a knee-jerk reaction, but the reality is it’s better to hit the deer.”
Kunkel also warned those who ride motorcycles to be vigilant.
“People riding motorcycles this time of year should be extremely cautious, especially in areas where there are known deer populations,” he said. “Motorcycle drivers are less protected than those traveling in a vehicle, and if they are not wearing a helmet they are at even greater risk of injury in any kind of accident.”
Deer also roam in packs, Kunkel said. Drivers should be aware that if one deer crosses the road, chances are there are more ready to follow.
“So, not only do we need to watch out for that deer that is in the road or crossing in front of you already, but always be ready for another one following behind it, because so often, someone hits the breaks or misses that one deer in the road and then gets hit by that second one running after it,” he said.
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And though Kunkel said there’s really no fail-safe way to avoid hitting a deer in Iowa, if he had to focus on one contributor — other than the animal — it would be speed.
“The faster you’re going, especially if you’re exceeding the speed limit, the shorter your reaction time and the longer your stopping distance,” he said. “So, one of the best things to do is to be aware — remember you are in Iowa and deer crossing the road is very likely — and watch your speeds, and just be on your guard. If you think about it, when the roads get slick, we slow down, we prepare, we think about road conditions, and we can be that conscious about our environment when it comes to deer, too.”
If a crash happens, Kunkel said, wait until traffic is clear and pull the vehicle to the side of the road, turn on the emergency lights and call for help. Do not approach the deer, he said. If it still is alive, it could further injure itself or anyone who gets too close.
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