In the snowy late autumn twilight, we bounced off our minivan before we even saw the deer. The next thing we knew, it was crashing into the woods on the Superior side of Highway 61 north of Betty Pie.
“Textbook DVC,” Raphael Stern said, using the acronym Deer Vehicle Collision, when I described the crash to him.
Stern is an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Geological Engineering and a researcher on a Minnesota Department of Transportation-funded program studying road traffic accidents.
This isn’t actually the plot of a horror movie script; the goal is to find patterns that can help figure out when, why, and how a car and a deer collided. In Minnesota, there are about 2,000 reported collisions with deer each year, but researchers suspect the real number is at least 10 times that number. In Minnesota alone, there were more than 40,000 animal-vehicle collisions last year, according to State Farm estimates.
“There’s no question that they’re undervalued,” said Ron Moon, a biologist at the University of Minnesota-Duluth who does the actual driving and roadside hunting for deer carcasses. “The real question is how much they are undervalued.”
This problem seems too big to solve. “We know we have a lot of DVC, and if you put all the dots on the map, it seems to be happening everywhere,” said Christopher Smith from MnDOT. “Hopefully some of these analyzes do find some patterns.”
With a more robust data set, the researchers hope to be able to identify hotspots, the roads where deer and cars collide most often. MnDOT can then roll out solutions to prevent the crash. Still, the only way to get this data seems to be slow and laborious. As a result, Moen drives 500 miles every two to three weeks. He drives his Ford F-150 or Honda CR-V on Highway 53 at about 45 miles an hour, keeping his eyes on the side of the road for deer carcasses. It took two or three days, and he did it in silence.
Finding deer is “the only function,” he said, “so you pay attention. DVC on the road is one thing, but 5-10 feet from the road is another.”
When he finds a deer carcass, he pulls over to it if he can, uses GPS to identify the spot, notes whether it’s a fawn or an adult, and sometimes snaps a photo with his phone. This spring, as he was driving the route after the snow melted, he realized that all the crashes that had happened all winter had been frozen in time. (He offered to share the photo. I politely declined.)
Maughan may be missing some of the carcasses people pick up, either for human consumption or as dog food, but he says that’s a small fraction and shouldn’t affect his stats.
deer and car
A 1938 national park poster appeals to motorists, “Don’t kill our wild animals,” featuring an image of two deer caught in bright yellow headlights.
Since then, the primary concern for the DVC has shifted from protecting deer lives to protecting human life and protecting vehicles. The number of deer killed by cars in Minnesota is far fewer than the more than 130,000 deer killed by hunters each year. According to Moen, the annual economic cost to DVC from reported incidents is approximately $20 million.
Between 2016 and 2020, 18 Minnesotans died in collisions with deer (15 of them on motorcycles). Some states are worse. More recently, West Virginia has led the nation in wildlife traffic accidents — but Minnesota has been a top-10 finisher and currently ranks ninth. Underreporting is widespread across the country; Stern estimates that 60-90% go unreported. Collisions were least reported in rural areas because of shorter wait times for city law enforcement and because rural residents avoid potential damage by installing grille guards on the front bumper.
Data from other states cannot be fully transferred, Stern said. He noted that each state has different types of wildlife populations and different population distributions.
“My understanding is that deer don’t like being on the road; it’s more of a necessary issue,” he said.
But some Minnesota roads have a relatively unique attribute that’s delicious for deer: These animals love to lick roads sprinkled with ice salt.
However, there is some consistency: higher speeds generally lead to higher rates of wildlife crashes. And DVC does tend to occur more frequently in fall and spring, at dusk and dawn, when deer are most active. (Hence, our “textbook crash”.)
As the data continued to pour in, Stern’s job was to analyze different factors, including road width, how curved the road was, speed limits, the flow of rivers and the location of bridge intersections, and the distance of roads from trees, among other vegetation.
Once he’s identified what’s causing the hot spots, he can take countermeasures there and along similar paths.
These measures may include barriers that divert deer in a certain direction, such as fencing or other infrastructure that encourages deer to stay off the road. For example, wildlife underpasses or culverts can help deer get from one side of the road to the other without coming into contact with cars.
“Still, the cost of implementing these things is very high, so we need to focus these efforts on the areas that need them most,” Smith said.
Ideally, the data will pinpoint details of the quarter-mile portion of the corridor to be renovated, Stern said. If MnDOT could focus on those worst parts, it would “significantly reduce” the number of accidents, he said.
Whatever the solution, MnDOT wants to avoid shifting the blame onto drivers.
“Drivers often have insufficient reaction time to avoid some of these effects,” Smith said. “We want to do everything we can to remove critters from the roads so people can focus on driving, not avoiding wildlife.”
The team has another year of data
Go to the collection before figuring out what fits best where. For now, though, there seems to be absolute consensus on one thing that won’t work: the yellow deer crossing the road sign.
“You never see a deer around them, so people get complacent,” Mohn said.
Smith confirmed that MnDOT is removing many road signs that do not provide critical information, including deer warning signs.
“We know people get used to them, especially if they don’t see the critters around,” he said. “The signs didn’t have any meaningful impact.” In Minnesota, they are needed on nearly every mile of every road if they are used correctly, Stern said.
“With the exception of a few residential streets in our larger urban areas, almost every mile of every road is prone to deer,” he said. “From a hunter’s perspective, it’s fine. From a driver’s perspective? It’s risky.”
How to Avoid Deer Strikes (According to the Minnesota Office of Transportation Safety)
- Drive at a safe speed and always wear your seat belt.
- Be especially careful between 6pm and 9pm.
- Use high beams as much as possible at night.
- Do not swerve to avoid deer. Turning can cause motorists to lose control and drive off the road or into oncoming traffic.
- Motorcyclists: Avoid riding at night and in low light. When encountering a deer, a rider’s best response is to apply both brakes simultaneously for maximum braking and keep eyes and head up. If a collision is imminent and there is enough room to get around the deer without leaving the road, use maximum braking and try to turn in the opposite direction of the deer’s travel before impact. Riders are encouraged to wear full helmets and full protective gear to prevent injury or death in a crash. High visibility gear can help other drivers see you better.
- Don’t count on deer whistles or deer fences to stop deer from crossing the road.
- Note the reflection of the deer’s eye and the silhouette of the deer on the shoulder of the road. Slow down if anything looks suspicious.
- Slow down in areas known to have large herds of deer, such as areas where roads separate farmland from woodland.
- Deer do unpredictable things. Honk to get the deer off the road. If a deer stays on the road, stop; don’t try to get around it.
what to do if you hit a deer
- If you wish to make an insurance claim, please call your local police station.
- Any Minnesota resident may use an animal that has died on the road by contacting law enforcement. Authorization permits will be issued allowing individuals to legally own deer.
- If a deer is hit by a vehicle but not killed, keep your distance as the deer may recover and move on. If a deer does not move on or poses a risk to public safety, report the incident to a DNR conservation officer or other local law enforcement agency.