Deer crossing road at night © iStock

Auto accidents involving deer can be deadly — and not only for the deer. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute report that during the most recent year for which statistics are available, 191 people were killed on U.S. roads in collisions with animals, often deer.

Drivers need to be alert to the very real risk, to avoid becoming a statistic. An annual analysis by auto insurance giant State Farm estimates that the current odds of a U.S. motorist hitting a deer, elk or moose are 1 in 169, the same as in 2014.

The crashes have become more expensive, averaging more than $4,100 per claim, up 6% from last year, State Farm says.

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Deer crashes have a peak season

State Farm says the month when deer-vehicle collisions are most common is November, followed by October and December. Ohio Insurance Institute spokesman Mitch Wilson explains that accidents spike from October to January, the height of deer mating and migration season.

“They’re most active at dusk and dawn, from 5 p.m. to midnight, and 5 a.m. to 8 a.m.,” he says. “Of course, those are times when cars are normally on the road, too.”

As many an unlucky motorist will attest, you don’t necessarily have to run into a deer to be involved in a deer-related crash.

“A lot of times, you may not hit the deer; the deer may hit you or leap onto your car,” Wilson says. That happens in many, many cases.”

Bucking normal insurance logic

Startled drivers who have run-ins with deer are often equally surprised by how their auto insurance treats their claims.

Logic might suggest that such crashes would fall under the collision portion of your policy, which pays for damage to your vehicle if you hit (or are hit) by another vehicle or object. Instead, animal-related damage is typically treated as an “other than collision” claim under your comprehensive coverage, or “comp,” which covers so-called acts of God such as wind, hail and flood, as well as fire, vandalism and theft.

State Farm’s underwriters each year calculate your relative likelihood of hitting a deer, based on the insurer’s claims reports and numbers of licensed drivers. The risk could be a compelling reason to carry comp as well as collision coverage, says spokesman Dick Luedke.

Deer crashes by state ©

“Most people, though not very many State Farm customers, have one of those and not the other,” he says. “Either you have them both or you have neither. When you have an older car, sometimes you don’t purchase the physical-damage coverages, but more people with newer cars definitely have both.”

Deer and your deductible

Then there’s the issue of deductibles. Drivers often boost their deductibles on collision or comp to save on premiums, but a deer collision can wreck that cost-cutting strategy. You’ll ask yourself, “Did I raise my collision deductible to $1,000, or was it my comp deductible?” That’s something you’ll want to know if you hit a deer.

Your deductibles will help determine whether it’s wise to file the claim or pay for the repairs yourself.

“Say you have a $1,000 deductible and $1,500 in damage,” Wilson says. “Do you want to possibly jeopardize your insurability with this company by filing this $1,500 claim, or do you eat the $500 and not turn it in?”

Another important factor in that decision is your claims history, he adds. “If you or your kids have had a string of previous claims, a company may say you’ve exceeded their internal guidelines for this type of policy, and in some states they may ‘non-renew’ you for that.”

But Wilson says insurers won’t raise rates for a one-time deer-related claim because they don’t hold drivers at fault in deer crashes.

Steer clear of deer

Driving tips to avoid deer:

  • Watch for deer between sunset and midnight, and during pre-dawn hours when they’re most active.
  • Be especially attentive for deer during the October-to-January migration and mating season.
  • Slow down in posted deer-crossing areas.
  • If you see 1 deer, remember that others are probably nearby.
  • Use high beams at night in deer territory when there is no oncoming traffic.
  • If a deer is frozen in your headlights, honk your horn in a loud, sustained blast.
  • Don’t rely on deer whistles or roadside reflectors; they have not been proven effective.
  • If you can’t avoid a deer, brake and stay in your lane. Don’t endanger other vehicles.
  • If you strike a deer, do not touch the animal. It may harm you or further injure itself.
  • Call police immediately if you hit or are hit by a deer.
  • Take pictures of the accident scene and vehicle damage for your insurance claim.

Sources: Insurance Information Institute. Mitch Wilson, Ohio Insurance Institute.

Grabbing the problem by the antlers

Deer-vehicle collisions have increased 50% over the past few decades as suburban sprawl has encroached farther into deer country, says Marcel Huijser, senior research ecologist for the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University.

“We have and want wildlife; we have and want roads. So if we can’t get rid of one or the other, we’re pretty much going to have wildlife-vehicle collisions,” he says.

Efforts to cut down on crashes by posting those familiar yellow-and-black “Deer Crossing” road signs have been as ineffective as the deer whistles that some people have taken to mounting on their cars.

“What do you do with a sign that says ‘Watch out for deer next 34 miles’? You forget about it 100 yards later,” says Huijser. “Same with whistles. There is no evidence that they work, but people like them because they’re inexpensive and it seems like they’re doing something.”

The 2 best solutions

Of the more than 40 mitigation measures Huijser has studied to curb deer-vehicle collisions, he says only 2 can help reduce the annual costs and human suffering.

“Wildlife fencing in combination with (overpasses) and underpasses provides safe (highway) crossing opportunities” for deer, he says. “The other is animal detection systems — technology deployed along the side of the road that detects large animals as they approach and activates warning signs for drivers. … Some of these systems can bring from 50% up to nearly 100% reduction in collisions in some areas.”

Huijser says auto insurance companies could save money and lives by working with local governments to implement these 2 mitigation strategies where deer crashes are most prevalent.

“You have 3 arguments pleading for implementation measures: human safety, nature conservation and the cold, hard dollar,” he says. “It’s actually costing more money to do nothing.”

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