’Tis the season.
Fall foliage. Oktoberfest. The middle of the Buffalo Bills schedule. Crisp, cool autumn days.
And car-deer season.
In fact, vehicles colliding with or avoiding animals – mostly deer – account for about twice as many accidents each year in New York State as the combined total of alcohol use, falling asleep at the wheel and drugs.
“Car-deer accidents can be traumatic, expensive and sometimes very dangerous,” Chautauqua County Sheriff Joseph A. Gerace said.
And fall is the most dangerous time of year.
In Chautauqua County, for example, almost one-third of the county’s 721 car-deer accidents last year occurred in October or November, with December not far behind.
There’s no mystery why. Fall is the season for deer mating and migration. That’s when the deer are on the move, so that’s when accidents most commonly occur.
“They’re moving from place to place, looking for food, and they’re hypnotized by headlights,” Gerace said. “When they see them, they freeze. It happens really quickly.”
Animal-vehicle collisions may be more common than most people think.
Of the 259,740 motor-vehicle crashes (involving death, injury or substantial property damage) that were reported to police in New York State in 2013, 9.3 percent listed “animal’s action” as a key factor. That was the fifth most common cause of crashes, following driver distraction, driving too closely, failure to yield the right-of-way and unsafe speed, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
“Animal’s action” was listed as a key cause of 24,121 accidents in the state two years ago. That’s almost twice as many as the 12,252 accidents attributed to alcohol use, drugs and falling asleep combined. (But “only” five of those animal-involved accidents were fatal.)
Those are all statewide figures, including New York City, so the local percentage of animal-related collisions may be higher than 9.3 percent.
That’s especially true for the Erie County Sheriff’s Office, which often patrols the more rural, outlying towns that don’t have police departments.
Referring to the statewide 9.3 percent figure, Sgt. Eric Kaderli, who oversees the sheriff’s Crash Investigation Unit, said, “I think our percentage might be higher than that. It seems that every morning, when we look at complaints, there are a lot of ‘car-deers.’ ”
Animal-vehicle season already has started in Western New York, with two fatal accidents this month, one involving a deer and the other a cow.
At about 8:25 p.m. Monday, a 35-year-old motorcyclist from Little Valley in Cattaraugus County was killed after her vehicle struck a cow and then was hit by another motorcycle.
Nine days earlier, a 19-year-old Allegany County man was killed and his passenger seriously injured in an early-morning accident when their vehicle struck a deer, went down an embankment, hit several large rocks and landed in a creekbed.
It’s hard to find any obvious trend in the numbers of recent car-deer crashes, as seen by the data from Amherst, clearly one of the top locales for roaming deer.
Here are the numbers of “deer-vehicle” accidents reported by Amherst police, from 2010 through 2014: 457 in 2010, followed by 313, 373, 357 and 481.
Try finding any pattern in those numbers.
Anecdotal evidence from towns such as Amherst and Lancaster strongly suggests that deer have moved increasingly from mostly rural areas to the region’s more populated suburbs.
But Kaderli, from the Erie County Sheriff’s Office, added another factor.
“It’s not that the deer have moved into residential areas, it’s that the residential areas have moved to where the deer are,” Kaderli said. “You start building houses in heavily wooded areas, and it’s likely that you’re going to have more wildlife and deer.”
Emergency responders, especially those working in more rural areas, have seen their share of gruesome car-deer collisions.
Gerace, the Chautauqua sheriff, recalled one investigated by his department several years ago, when a deer smashed through the windshield and flew over the head of the ducking driver, before it thrashed around in the minivan’s back seat and then died.
First responders thought the driver had suffered a devastating injury.
“But the driver was just covered in the deer’s blood,” the sheriff said.
Gerace offered the most logical suggestion for cutting down on such collisions.
“Slow down. Slow down,” he emphasized. “People are overdriving their headlights. They’re going too fast to stop in time for what they see.”
Gerace offered about a dozen other suggestions to reduce the number of deer-vehicle collisions:
• Be aware of deer-crossing signs.
• Remember that deer are most active between 6 and 9 p.m.
• Use high-beam headlights as much as possible at night on rural roads.
• Don’t rely on car-mounted deer whistles.
• Realize that deer generally travel in herds. If you see one, others likely are nearby.
• Try not to swerve if a collision seems inevitable.
• And, following a collision, don’t attempt to remove a deer from the road, unless you’re sure it’s dead. An injured deer’s sharp hooves can easily hurt you.