It's that time of year: The mornings are crisp, the leaves are turning and deer season is just around the corner. In Wisconsin, archery is already open, and gun season starts mid-November.
But it's not only hunting season; it's also peak season for hitting deer on the roads.
To be sure, collisions with deer happen year-round. Yet the months of October and November consistently rank among the highest for deer-vehicle crashes. As the manager of one Milwaukee auto repair shop put it, these collisions rise to "epidemic" levels in the fall.
Why the seasonal spike? There are multiple reasons. Days are growing shorter, meaning more drivers are commuting before sunrise and after sunset. The deer themselves are also more active come autumn and early winter. It's the midst of their mating season, when bucks become bolder, and bucks and does alike are fattening up for the winter.
Just how many deer crashes happen?
Deer thrive in Wisconsin. They're practically the wildlife symbol of our state. It's not surprising, then, that we have among the top-five highest rates of deer-vehicle crashes nationwide. In 2016 alone, more than 20,000 collisions occurred statewide - an average of 56 per day.
Thankfully, most of those crashes don't result in injuries or fatalities. But a handful do. Between 2011 and 2016, deer claimed 53 lives and injured more than 2,500.
Even minor collisions - those that don't cause injury to the driver or passengers - can be expensive. The average deer collision costs nearly $3,500, according to insurance data from 2016.
Where do they happen?
The riskiest areas for deer collisions are rural, wooded highways, where the combination of high speed limits, narrow shoulders and poor visibility increase the likelihood of an encounter. In particular, the forests and farmlands of Western Wisconsin were hit hard in 2016 (the latest year for which accurate reporting is available). The Wisconsin Department of Transportation reports high accident rates in western counties that year:
- Saint Croix: 690
- Chippewa: 335
- Eau Claire: 312
- Polk: 166
- Dunn: 141
- Washburn: 140
- Douglas: 73
- Barron: 68
- Burnett: 52
In all, these nine counties accounted for nearly 10 percent of all Wisconsin deer accidents in 2016.
How to avoid them
There's no surefire way to avoid deer in our state, but you can lower your chances of running into them. Awareness is the biggest factor. Now that you know when and where deer collisions are likeliest, you can keep an eye out for them.
Safe driving habits in general can also go a long way toward reducing your risk. Always keep your eyes on the road, and don't give into distractions (especially cellphones). Maintain safe speeds for the conditions. Slow down after dark or before dawn, use your high beams when appropriate, and keep your brakes in good working condition.
Finally, if you do find yourself face-to-face with a deer in the headlights, don't swerve your vehicle. Brake hard but maintain control. You're far better off hitting a deer (who's at a standstill) than crashing into an oncoming vehicle that's traveling 60-plus mph.