It took several seconds for my brain to register what I was seeing.
A huge lump of something distinctly meat-ish, but with no distinct shape or features to let me know what it once had been. Cars on the I-90 in New York State were zipping around it and, within 15 minutes on this late weekend afternoon, I'd see three more.
Deer. The signs had been posted throughout most of my eight-hour trip, much as they are here in many parts of Canada. When I was a kid, seeing a deer was a big deal; these days, it seems like it's easier to not see one. Colliding with a deer rarely ends well for the deer or the vehicle, and I'd been scanning constantly from the twisting turns of rural Vermont secondary roads to the wide shoulders of thruways.
While I prefer my roadkill to not happen at all, I'm more used to the racoons and possums that lie by the roadside, small hands clasped in front of them as if their final prayer had gone unanswered. I'm aware dead is dead, but the fact that the deer I'd seen was pulverized beyond recognition made me pause to wonder just what had hit it. Minutes earlier, a flashing board had advertised a radio frequency to tune in to, and the report I'd caught had cautioned about debris on the road, and an injury accident.
Debris. Bambi one minute, debris the next.
It's the most dangerous time of year for the drivers-and-deer combination. Late fall and early winter, dawn and dusk. They travel in groups, and they are also noted for playing follow the leader, even if the leader just ran into a vehicle. Deer are not the most intelligent of animals.
Each year, 200 people die in North America due to colliding with wildlife. If you've driven long enough, you've probably heard the sick thunk of a raccoon or squirrel under your chassis.
The latest Ministry of Transportation report for Ontario (2008) shows that wildlife collisions rank third in "moveable object" incidents behind other vehicles, and unattended vehicles. While the Insurance Bureau of Canada says it didn't keep specific records of deer collisions, officials there reassured me that you would be covered, in the event of a deer strike, by the comprehensive section of your policy – which should not result in any increase in rates. They didn't mention the cost to the deer.
Fact is, 90 per cent of the time, the deer will die, and 65 per cent of the time there will be injuries to drivers or passengers. In the United States, researchers estimate it costs more than a billion dollars a year, and in Canada more than $200-million.
So, what do you do when it seems the signs are everywhere? Well, believe them, for starters.
Deer concentrate near water, and forage for food at night. Their mating season is now; the only thing dumber than a deer is a Romeo deer. Their eyes have a reflective membrane on them, however, and if you are scanning the foliage you might give yourself a head start on avoiding a collision. This can be tiring for a driver, especially if you've been on the road a while and every rural mailbox and reflective driveway guide starts to become a deer. Ask a passenger to help you keep watch.
You're best to slow down, and not overdrive your headlights. High-beams will give you the widest range of light, so use them when it's appropriate. The safest place is the middle of a roadway, which nobody will officially tell you, but it's the truth. On empty rural stretches or back country cottage roads, give yourself as much margin as you safely can.
On more travelled roads, allow yourself extra space from the car ahead. Just because it misses the deer, doesn't mean you will; just because they hit it, doesn't mean you have to hit them. You will instinctively want to swerve, but there are other factors to consider. The risk of hitting another vehicle, or heading off the roadway and hitting a fixed object like a tree, can result in worse injury and damage. Hit your brakes for a controlled stop and keep your wheel straight. If you've been attentive and had even a slight warning, you can minimize damage to both of you.
Still want to swerve? If you're alone on the road and not at risk of taking the ditch, swerve to where the deer just came from. I'm not sure the deer would quote me on that, but I have a lot of rural friends who swear by this manoeuvre.
If everything fails and you collide, stay put. The deer (or any wildlife) may be in shock, and could get aggressive if you approach. Call 911 and turn on your hazards to warn other drivers of the danger.
While any wildlife collision will leave you shaken, it can get worse. A deer is considered a small animal compared to a moose. In the event of a moose? In B.C., the Wildlife Collision Prevention Program advises you to swerve.