Deer in headlights: Rut causes largest number of collisions throughout year

MARK SANDQUIST Outdoors Reporter

Annually, November accounts for nearly a quarter of all reported vehicle accidents with wild animals in South Dakota.

According to the South Dakota Department of Public Safety, from 2004-15, November was the busiest month over this 11-year period for motor vehicle accidents with animals, at 12,618 reported crashes total, followed by October, at only 7,479 in the 2004-15 time-frame.

Last year alone, South Dakota drivers had 1,067 crashes with wild animals  in November.

Motorists report accidents with a variety of wild game species, including big game, such as buffalo and elk, and small game, like pheasants and geese, but the majority of incidents can be contributed to one suspect.

“Generally speaking, about 95 percent of all wild game and vehicle accidents involve deer,” said Lee Axdahl, director of the Office of Highway Safety.

South Dakota is home to a strong deer population across the state. Being the most abundant big game animal, deer near public roadways can create headaches for drivers, especially during the time of year known as the rut.

Occurring each November, the rut is the period when deer are looking to find a mate to breed with. It typically lasts only a few weeks, but during this time, deer stray far outside of their known home grounds and into unfamiliar territory. This can cause safety problems, not only for deer themselves, but for people traveling on roadways around the state.

Deer spend much of the rut on their feet, more than any other time of the year. Couple that with tendencies of deer to be unpredictable around vehicles and in new terrains, and that spells a recipe for disaster.

“Sometimes they’ll be standing in the middle of the road or in the ditch, and other times they’ll jump out of nowhere and you can’t do anything,” Axdahl said.

Corey Clark, senior agronomy major, knows the unpredictability of deer all too well.

After an evening of fishing last year, Clark and a friend were making their way back to Brookings. It was a dark night, and they were traveling through rural Kingsbury County very cautiously.

Although they were focused and alert, a small doe ran full-speed across the road from the driver’s side, hitting their truck’s grille and totaling the vehicle.

“It was really crazy, the deer came out of absolutely nowhere,” Clark said. “There wasn’t any time to hit the brakes or anything.”

As Axdahl advises, the best way to react is to not swerve, but rather drive right through the collision with the deer. Additionally, he recommends driving with your high beams on during low-light conditions, such as dawn, dusk and at night, which Clark and his friend had on at the time of the collision. Using high beams and illuminating as much of the road as possible helps limit the number of accidents with deer while driving.

So far in 2016, of the 3,172 reported wild animal crashes statewide, Minnehaha County has the highest, with 273 reported through the end of October. Pennington County is a close second with 254, followed by Lawrence County at 170.

In the past 12 years, Minnehaha County averaged more than 450 vehicle accidents with wild animals annually.  Over the same time frame, South Dakota statewide has averaged 4,673 incidents per year, so expect to see 2016 totals continue to rise.

As the statewide statistics show, taking extra precaution during the month of November is imperative to reducing crashes with wild animals. Even so, a vehicle accident with a deer can happen to anyone.

“Right afterwards, I was so shocked,” Clark said. “I couldn’t believe how fast everything happened.”