White-tailed deer are the deadliest animals in North America. Every year an estimated 1.25 million deer-vehicle crashes result in about 150 human fatalities, more than 10,000 injuries, and insurance payouts approaching $4 billion.
We now have about 30 million deer in the United States—100 times more than a century ago. Having all those deer has consequences—for us, the landscape, and the deer themselves. The one time Americans are most likely to experience a close encounter with deer is when they get behind the wheel. And even if we’re apathetic about ecological impacts, front-bumper, hood, and windshield impacts still have a way of getting our attention.
To learn more about the harsh realities behind the statistics, I spent an eight-hour shift riding along with Wisconsin state trooper Dean Luhman for a little first-hand roadkill research. Please understand: I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. I didn’t even want a deer to get hurt. Still, if it were going to happen anyway, I wanted to see for myself how troopers work a deer crash. But as the night wore on, it began to look increasingly unlikely. We saw expired plates, expired licenses, but no expired deer. But that night I did learn a lot more from Luhman about what happens at the scene of deer-car crashes. He told me his first priority is always to ensure that no further crashes occur. When he arrives on the scene, he first looks for vehicles or debris—including, possibly, the deer itself—in the roadway. Then he positions his cruiser with its emergency lights on. He may also put out flares or traffic cones, call in more units, or close the roadway.
Next he talks with the driver to check for injuries and size up the situation. He might need to move the driver and passengers to a safer location, or else call for an ambulance or tow truck.
Assuming everyone’s unharmed, the next question he’ll ask is about the deer. If it’s injured but still alive, it will need to be euthanized—not just to end its suffering, but also to make sure it doesn’t get back up and stumble out into traffic.
Even when a deer is dead and safely off in the ditch, roadkill is the gift that keeps on giving. “More than once,” Luhman told me, “I’ve been to a crash where someone stopped to illegally saw the antlers off a roadkill buck. They’re at a spot where they can’t pull all the way off the road, and then someone else comes along and slams into their pickup from behind. Expensive antlers.”
Other secondary crashes happen when drivers slow to gawk at nonhuman scavengers. “It happens with coyotes,” Luhman told me, “but mostly with eagles perched on deer carcasses. We get people up from the city who have never seen an eagle that close. They hit the brakes to get a better look, someone else is tailgating, and there you go.” On rare occasions, other drivers collide with gluttonous, overloaded eagles struggling to gain altitude as they flap out into the road.
If vehicles at the crash site are badly damaged, Luhman takes plenty of photos. To help drivers prove to their insurance company that a deer was involved, he always tries to get a few shots of evidence visible on the vehicle itself—usually in the form of hair, blood, or “other bodily fluids.” Then it’s time for a little paperwork. If there’s only one vehicle involved and no injuries, troopers can use an abbreviated form. That’s always a relief for everyone concerned. The long form requires Luhman to collect more information, describe the situation in more detail, and even sketch a diagram of the scene.
Here in Wisconsin, there’s also a special roadkill possession form. The law states that when drivers are still on the scene, they have first chance at the deer. Luhman always offers, and he never makes assumptions based on drivers’ age or gender—or, for that matter, the age and type of vehicle. Although some deer do end up splattered, splintered, or smeared by a collision, most are surprisingly intact. And even if the front of the deer is in rough shape, there could be a lot of good meat left on the hindquarters.
“I hate to see a deer go to waste,” Luhman told me, “and they rarely do.” Luhman patrols a county that’s not especially prosperous. While he’s at the scene, it’s common for other drivers to pull over and ask if the deer might still be available. And if the county has dispatched him to the scene, chances are good that someone listening to a police scanner will call the sheriff’s department to ask if the driver wants the deer. The county often receives one or two of these calls before Luhman even arrives.
After the driver, however, Luhman always give first priority to people on the list he carries in his pocket. It’s a list of names and phone numbers that have been given to him by people who are out of work and having a tough time making ends meet. “They usually come up to me when I’m stopped at the gas station,” he told me. “It’s not like they have many other opportunities. They’ll look to make sure no one else is nearby, and then they’ll walk over and hand me a phone number. I visit with them for a minute, but only if they want. Sometimes they’ll tell me about their situation. I put them on my list.”
Assuming there are no injuries, most drivers can leave on their own as soon as they’re done with the paperwork. For everyone else, Luhman has all four of the county’s tow truck operators on speed dial. If he can, he’ll call one directly so he can describe the location and what to expect. If there’s a lot going on, he’ll ask his dispatcher, a deputy, or a firefighter or first responder to make the call. Or, if the damaged vehicle is well off the road and not hidden by a hill or a curve in the road, sometimes it stays there for a while and Luhman gives the driver a ride home or into town.
The more passengers in the vehicle, the more problematic the logistics. “For years,” Luhman says, “I’ve been asking tow operators to order trucks with four doors and a second row of seats. Finally, I’m now seeing more of them. One way or another, we can usually transport everyone in the tow truck and my cruiser. Sometimes I’ll call a deputy to help. And if all else fails, I can make several trips. It happens.”
Despite the really cool hat, the uniform, the regulation haircut, the tie, and the perfectly creased trousers, the job description does includes cleanup. It’s a dirty job. At many crashes, the roadway is littered with a fair amount of broken glass, plastic grille fragments, and ragged bits of deer carcass. The longer debris remains in the roadway, the more likely it is to trigger another accident.
I asked Luhman if, back in the trunk along with his rifle and shotgun, he also carried a push broom. He told me he did—and a shovel, too. “Between the tow operator, firefighters, and myself,” he said, “we usually get the roadway cleared pretty quickly. But if there’s something major, we’ll get help.”
Examples? “Well,” he told me, “I remember the time we had one stuck down pretty hard. It was 30 below, and what was left of the deer froze to the highway. We needed a county plow to help scrape that one off.”
To help you avoid getting in scrapes of your own, Luhman offers this advice: “If you see a deer in the roadway, don’t swerve. Hit it. Cars can be fixed or replaced. As long as no one’s tailgating you, hit the brakes. But if you can’t do that, then hit the deer.”
“Here are a couple more things you can do,” he added. “Adjust your headrest so it’s at the right height to prevent whiplash. You’d be surprised how many people just leave them shoved all the way down. Maintain your lights, brakes, and tires so you can see, be seen, and stop. Wear your seat belt, don’t tailgate, and slow down.”
“And when you’re driving,” Luhman said, “drive. At deer crashes, and at a lot of other crashes, too, the number one excuse I hear is ‘I wasn’t paying attention.’ ”
Here in the north woods there’s not much stop-and-go traffic to trip up inattentive drivers; that means a fair percentage of Luhman’s calls involve deer. The same is true for local body shops; George Hertzner, the owner of Awesome Auto Body in Minong, Wisconsin, told me that more than 60 percent of his business comes from deer-car crashes. Most of the rest comes from customers who drink and drive. Hertzner figures he owes his job security to just two things: deer and beer.
Despite those small-town percentages, your risk of being involved in a deer-vehicle crash is actually higher if your daily commute takes you through the suburbs of states like Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, or Virginia. That’s where deer populations are exploding, and that’s where the risk is—not way out in the woods where deer densities are lower.
Hertzner says it helps to keep vigilant, especially at dawn and dusk. And if you see one deer crossing the road, slow down. Deer often travel in groups. Just when you’ve seen one and avoided it, one or two more could be following it out onto the pavement. During the rut, a lone doe could be followed by a buck in hot pursuit. With their thoughts elsewhere, neither will remember to look both ways before crossing the street.
And those little plastic deer whistles so many drivers stick on their front bumpers? It turns out most of them don’t actually make the sound they’re supposed to make. Even if they did, deer couldn’t hear it. And even if they could, they wouldn’t notice or care.
Sooner or later, a deer will appear. You will have no warning, and you’ll have only milliseconds to react. For times like that, Hertzner has some familiar advice: “Don’t swerve. Hit the damn deer.” This isn’t because Hertzner hates deer, and it isn’t because he wants your business. He has plenty. It’s just that he’d rather not see you become earlier-than-expected business for your local funeral director.
If you swerve, chances are good that you’ll lose control and slam into a tree, veer into oncoming traffic, or hit the ditch and roll your vehicle. “If you have time to stop,” says Hertzner, “then stop. But don’t swerve and risk your neck over a deer—or worse yet, over a dog or a squirrel. Believe me, I’ve seen it happen.”
Hertzner has seen a lot, and he wants you to get your priorities straight: “Don’t worship your car, and don’t get too attached. It’s just a vehicle, a tool to get you from point A to point B. It’s insured. Cars are like socks. Be ready to change them once in a while.
“You’re worth more than a deer or a car. And your car can be fixed. Your neck can’t. Your car? That’s what insurance is for. So don’t swerve. Hit the damn deer.”