If you ask most folks what's the most dangerous wild animal in North America, you’d probably get an array of answers ranging from grizzly bears to rattlesnakes.
Chances are the whitetail deer wouldn’t rank high on the guess list.
Yet that’s where deer rate – the No. 1 cause of injuries and deaths to humans every year.
That’s because deer cause so many automobile accidents. And fall is the most dangerous period.
Autumn signals the start of mating season or “the rut” for deer, when bucks chase does with reckless abandon. The normally-wary animals don’t watch where they’re going as they dart about in a frenzy.
One TV anchor-woman, reporting on the high incidence of deer/car collisions every fall, said it is caused by “deer being chased by hunters.”
Nonsense. Venture into any wildlife sanctuary on which no hunting is permitted -- such as Longhunter State Park or Radnor Lake -- and you’ll see the same frantic fall activity among deer.
If the deer are fleeing from hunters, why is nighttime a particularly dangerous time for deer to dart across roads? There are no hunters chasing them after dark.
The increased deer activity in the fall is due to hormones, not hunting. In this region late-September through mid-December is peak mating season, and that means more deer darting across highways.
In Tennessee mature bucks average about 135 pounds and an impact with a fast-moving automobile can be devastating. Hitting even an 80-pound doe can virtually total a car, or cause it to veer off the road and crash.
Deer-damage to automobiles nationally runs into hundreds of millions of dollars according to the insurance industry, and injuries to drivers are incalculable.
Two years ago a child was killed in the Nashville suburbs when the car in which she was riding struck a deer and crashed, and later a motorcyclist had a fatal deer collision.
The problem has increased in recent years for a number of reasons: there are more deer than ever, there are more cars than ever, and more residential developments (and motorists) encroaching into once-rural deer habitat.
Deer are creatures of habit, following the same trails and crossings for generations. More and more roads are being built across those trails, carrying more and more traffic.
The best precaution is to slow down and stay alert, especially when driving through wooded or brushy areas from which a deer can suddenly dart. Keep an eye out for any movement near the roadside and for eyes shining in the dark.
If one deer darts across the road, be prepared to stop – chances are one or more will be close behind. Early morning and late afternoon are prime time for deer, but during mating season they may appear at any time of day or night.
Depending on speed, road conditions and other factors, it’s not always wise to swerve to miss a deer. The vehicle could veer off the road and crash, or swerve into the path of an oncoming vehicle – both potentially worse than hitting the deer head-on.
If a deer is struck and injured, don’t go near it. The panic-stricken animal can inflict serious injury with thrashing hooves and antlers. If a dead or injured deer is obstructing traffic, report it to authorities.
The best solution to the problem is for hunters to thin the deer population. Meanwhile it’s up to motorists to keep a lookout for darting deer, because this time of year the deer aren’t looking out for the motorist.