The metro area isn't immune as traffic plus deer spells trouble, especially at this time of year.
If you're driving to visit relatives or friends for the holidays, don't ease up on your alertness for deer just because you're in the brighter lights of the metro area.
Nearly a quarter of the deer killed by cars in Minnesota each year meet their demise in the metro area, with Hennepin County leading the way with nearly 1,000 crashes during the past five years.
Yvonne Walcott learned that recently on a drive from Morris to the Twin Cities. "We were alert for deer all the way and thought we would be in the clear when we got to the metro area," she said.
But right after she turned onto Interstate 494 in Plymouth, a driver in the right lane hit a deer that caromed over the hood and into the side of Walcott's pickup. "It made a perfect impression of a deer in the metal side panels of the truck," she said.
County-by-county statistics across the state for the past five years show that Hennepin, Washington, Dakota, Anoka and Carver are among the top seven counties in the state for damaged vehicles and road-killed deer.
November and early December are a particularly bad time. Deer are more active than usual because they're mating. They move the most at dawn and dusk, hours that coincide perfectly with peak traffic. Deer-vehicle collisions also result in serious human injuries and even fatalities each year, especially for motorcyclists.
The crashes are so common that the Minnesota Department of Transportation is no longer posting new "Deer Crossing" signs to alert motorists. The signs give a false sense of security, said department spokesman Kent Barnard, and motorists need to know that there's always risk, not just where signs are present.
Barnard said there's a logical explanation for the higher numbers of accidents in the metro area.
It's also because of deer densities, said Dennis Simon, wildlife management section chief at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Many metro communities do not allow deer hunting with firearms or bows, he said, and deer populations thrive.
Deer, like coyotes, are incredibly adaptive to urban settings, he said, and the metro area offers ample deer habitat: along railroad corridors, riverways, wooded areas, wetlands, lakes, parks, and spacious residential lots.
"You give deer 60 or 70 acres of linear habitat where they're not being harassed, and they'll live their entire lives there," said Simon.
Prime accident month
Statewide deer-vehicle collisions in 2010 are on track with recent years. More than 1,900 collisions have been reported so far across the state, compared with more than 2,600 last year. The Minnesota Department of Public Safety compiles the crash reports from law enforcement agencies.
For every accident recorded, at least two others are probably not reported to authorities, said department spokesman Nathan Bowie.
The accidents spike in late fall for several reasons. Bucks are more active during mating season and travel farther searching for does. Farmers harvesting the last of their crops rouse deer herds from fields. Hunters also keep deer on the move throughout the state, especially during firearms season.
Capt. Matt Langer of the Minnesota State Patrol promotes the slogan "Don't veer for deer," because swerving to avoid deer can cause motorists to lose control and travel off the road or into incoming traffic. "The best defense is to be buckled and brake," he said.
Motorcyclists should avoid nighttime driving. If they see deer, they should slow down quickly and swerve around them at low speed.
During the past five years, 20 of 24 deaths related to deer-vehicle collisions in Minnesota were motorcycle drivers, as were 107 of the 132 serious injuries.
State is 10th in crash risks
State Farm Insurance, which tracks licensed drivers and collisions nationwide, calculates the likelihood that drivers in different states will hit deer. West Virginia tops the list, followed by Iowa. Michigan, South Dakota, North Dakota and Wisconsin are in the top eight, while Minnesota ranks 10th. The analysis includes 35 states.
Dick Luedke, spokesman for State Farm, said that based on the claims data, Minnesota probably has 10 times more deer-vehicle collisions than are reported to law enforcement. Between July 1, 2008, and June 30, 2009, there were 30,479 accidents in the state, he estimated, down from 33,799 the year before.
Laurel Brooks was just north of the Rosedale Mall on County Road C last Oct. 29 when she hit a deer at 8 a.m. "All I remember was her looking right at me, and she jumped as I slammed on the brakes," Brooks said. Police arrived and shot the injured animal.
Five days later, Pat Sheehan hit a deer at 6:25 p.m. while driving north on Hwy. 13 in Eagan, just past Lone Oak Road. The accident caused more than $4,200 damage to his 2004 Honda Civic, he said. The national average for deer-crash damage is $3,100, Luedke said.
Barnard and other safety experts advise drivers to be on the lookout for deer especially at dawn and dusk. Watch for the reflection of deer eyes and deer silhouettes on the shoulder of the road, and slow down if anything looks suspicious. Deer are unpredictable, and may cross a road only to stop and quickly cross back again.
Elizabeth Adams wishes someone had warned her that if you see one deer, another is likely to be close behind. The 19-year-old was startled to see a deer run across the road in front of her car near Rogers.
"A few seconds later as I was still preoccupied with the deer that just ran across the street, a second deer hit me directly on my driver's side door," she said. "An officer told me if the deer had lowered his head at all, I could have been killed."
Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388