The deer emerged from the forest and leapt into the roadway in a sudden swift movement. The sights and sounds of the busy two lane highway assailed the animal’s senses and drove it towards panic. In the opposite lane a car flashed by at close to 60 mph and the noise of its passing echoed off of the thick brush behind the animal. With threats from ahead and behind, the animal pivoted and fled up the roadway, running headlong into the white RAV4 which, despite the driver’s best efforts, was still traveling somewhere north of 50 mph when it struck the animal.
The small SUV’s bumper made contact first, knocking the deer’s legs out from under it and toppling its heavy body onto the hood. In a fraction of a second the car’s impact zones came into play, crumpling and folding to protect the vehicle’s occupants and absorbing much of the force of the collision. The nose of the Toyota bent downward and fenders bowed outward. The hood by either design or happy accident, I am not sure which, folded back in such a way that it covered the windshield and helped to protect the car’s occupants as the deer’s carcass slid up and over the top vehicle and onto the pavement behind. The RAV’s driver, a man in his late 70s who’s nerve damaged legs necessitated the use of hand controls in the car, fought for the control of the critically damaged vehicle and somehow managed to keep it out of a deep roadside ditch as the car juddered to a stop.
As is the nature of people small town America, a man appeared at the window to render assistance mere seconds after the accident. Others joined him and together they forced open the door and pulled the driver and his stunned wife, also in her 70s, from the car as the smoldering wreck burst suddenly and unexpectedly into flames. Traffic on the highway stopped and somewhere in the town just a mile or two behind the scene of an accident an alarm sounded and emergency responders rushed to their trucks. By the time they arrived on scene, the little white RAV was almost fully engulfed in flames. Black smoke changed to white steam as they played water on the fire and eventually the car was extinguished. As the two seniors were escorted away by family members who had rushed to the scene, they couldn’t help but wryly note that their little SUV looked more like a toasted marshmallow than the slick little car it had been just minutes earlier. It was a total loss.
The above story is real and unfolded last Saturday on a rural highway that runs between Monroe and Snohomish, Washington. The driver was my stepfather, Guy, and his passenger was my mother. Both were totally unharmed but the RAV, which was a nice little car with just a few thousand miles on the clock, was hauled away to a storage yard and the insurance adjuster called. Fortunately my brothers and sister in the area can help out with basic transport until Guy can purchase another car and have it outfitted with the special controls he uses, but I am sure the accident has left them both shaken.
As a motorcyclist, I learned early on that any accident or any close call is an opportunity to learn better riding skills. Whenever the worst happens, or as is more often the case whenever I escape the worst by a hair’s breadth, I spend some time sitting down after the fact and thinking about what I might have done differently. I am sure my stepfather running through all the various scenarios in his mind right now and, given the unpredictability of an animal in the roadway, it would be easy to walk away thinking that what happened was unavoidable. But I think that would be wrong. Animals are thinking creatures and will generally behave in predictable ways if you know what they are responding to. That knowledge might not have avoided the accident altogether, but it might have mitigated the results.
When I was about 18 years old, I was out on a deserted country road in my 74 Nova when a deer stumbled out of the forest and onto the roadway ahead of me. I was not going especially fast and I had sufficient time to slow my car down to around 15 miles an hour. As I closed on the animal, it moved out of my lane and I, thinking it was safe to pass behind the deer, began to accelerate again. As I closed the last few feet with the deer, now going about 20 mph, the deer suddenly turned and ran up the road away from me. I, being inexperienced, braked again but not hard enough and ended up striking the animal from behind. I didn’t hit the deer hard enough to really hurt it, although I am certain the 5 mph safety bumpers mounted on my car didn’t feel pleasant, but I did manage to put a big hole in my car’s plastic grill that I later had to swap out.
I thought long and hard about why the deer had reacted the way it did but could not find an answer on my own. In the end, it was an experienced hunter who clued me in. Deer, he told me, are prey animals who usually live in the deep woods and they rely a lot on sound to assess threat. A car closing in on them does not make a lot of noise because, thanks to the Doppler effect, it compresses the sound waves in front of it. This is also, as a side note, why someone walking on a train track can be easily run down by a train from behind and why, despite many bikers assertions otherwise loud pipes do not save lives. Out the back and off to the sides however, a vehicle does make noise and these noises are often reflected off the trees as it passes. The deer, whose ears are much more sensitive than the one you and I have, interpret these sounds as coming from the woods and as a result will almost always run up the road and away from a sound. Following this logic, In the case of my stepfather’s accident, the deer was spooked by a car that passed just seconds earlier and ended up running right into an oncoming car when it would have made more sense to have taken the shortest route off the road and back into cover.
Because of my earlier experience with a deer in the wild, I take animals in the road seriously. While I may admire their beauty and encourage my kids to look at Bambi as we pass I know in my heart they are stone cold killers. The Insurance Journal reports that between July 1, 2011 and June 30 2012 there were approximately 1.23 million deer/car collisions in the United States. These accidents caused about 200 deaths and resulted in insurance pay outs of almost $4 Billion. These are huge numbers but the amount of deaths per accident are not incredibly high. I am sure much of this can be attributed to good design and modern safety systems, but to me they also indicate that many of these accidents are not happening at full speed like the one that happened to Guy but are, rather, more like the low speed one I had. I wonder then, how many of these could actually have been avoided if people had a better understanding of the animal’s possible reaction.
I once wrote that every time I have ever tried to portray myself as an expert on anything I end up getting embarrassed by someone who actually is. If I tell someone I speak good Japanese it turns out their brother is fluent and has written actual books in the language and I come away looking like a chump. Mention that I studied Karate and Check Norris laughs in my face. I have no desire to portray myself as an expert on animal behavior, hell for that matter I don’t know what I am going to do from minute to minute so why would I think I would know the mind of a deer? What I do have, however, is you TTAC’s best and brightest. I am sure I am not the only one to have an animal encounter, and given that we are all sooner or later bound to have one of our own, I want you to share what you know. Tell us your tricks and maybe save a life.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.