On November 8 U.S. 1 reported on the efforts of officials to control the deer population, citing the threat that too many deer posed to the health of forest land, as well as to motorists (“Thinning the Herd, Healing the Land”).
Reporter Bart Jackson recounted how the deer population had exploded since his youth: “Forty years later, more than four times that many deer would be browsing through Garden State forests, backyards, and farmlands — and staring back into the headlights of startled motorists at night. In 1995 1.5 million deer/auto collisions in the U.S. caused 211 human deaths and 29,000 injuries. At a recent panel discussion in Hopewell Township the police chief reported that — of 808 car crashes in the township in 2016 — 181 involved deer.”
Since the story was published, that statistic has become a grim reality for four Central Jersey motorists.
On Friday, November 24, Mark Rodgers, 63, was driving his 2017 Hyundai Elantra north on South Middlebush Road north of Beekman Road in Franklin Township. The road is a two-lane rural highway lined by fields and trees. It was dusk, an hour after sunset, at 5:37 p.m., a time when deer are especially active and hard to see.
The car Rodgers was driving was a modern, safe vehicle that performs well in crash tests. It is equipped with anti-lock brakes, multiple air bags, and a high-strength passenger compartment designed to protect the car’s occupants in a collision. None of this mattered when Rogers hit what police described as a large buck. The impact was so hard, the deer went through the windshield, hit Rodgers, and landed in the back seat.
Rodgers was taken in critical condition to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, where he died the following Tuesday. He was a former Eagle scout and graduate of St. Anthony’s High School in Hamilton who earned an undergraduate degree at Marietta College in Ohio, a master’s at Miami University in Ohio, and a doctorate at Northwestern University in Illinois.
On Monday, December 4, in the pre-dawn gloom at 5:51 a.m., another driver was travelling north on Route 29 in Ewing near Wilburtha Road. On this stretch of highway, the road is lined by riverbank on the left side, and on the right a chain-link fence separates the road from a residential street.
This driver, whom Ewing Township police did not identify, also struck a deer. The impact was less than catastrophic, only damaging the vehicle’s tire. But the collision sent the car out of control, crossing over to the other side of the four-lane divided highway, where it hit two more vehicles. The driver of the car that hit the deer was found outside of his vehicle, and police were not sure if he was ejected in the crash or crawled away afterwards.
He was hospitalized with injuries to his head, ribs, and shoulders. One other driver sustained a knee injury and was treated and released, while another was hospitalized with a broken femur. Police closed off the road until 10:30 a.m. while they investigated the collision, and as of press time, the investigation was ongoing.
The crashes highlight the danger that deer pose to motorists all across New Jersey. Auto insurer State Farm rates New Jersey in the middle of the pack of states when it comes to the risk of hitting a deer, and calculates that every driver has a 1 in 229 chance of hitting a deer in any given year. In Pennsylvania it is 1 in 63. (These statistics also include heavily urbanized areas of New Jersey where deer encounters are rare.) Each collision costs an average of $4,179, according to the insurer.
But the property damage is just the beginning. Every year white-tailed deer cause 150 human fatalities and more than 10,000 injuries, according to other insurers’ statistics.
The New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance warns that deer are especially prone to sprinting into the roadways as bucks chase does during mating season, which runs from October through December. The most dangerous times of day are early in the morning and around sunset, when the deer are more active and visibility goes down. As it happens, these times are also when commuters are likely to be on the road.
“You don’t have to be a hunter to come into the crosshairs of deer during the fall months,” Commissioner Richard Badolato said in a press release. “You could find that your vehicle moves into the same path as a doe or buck. More deer accidents occur in October and November than the rest of the year.”
Baldolato said it’s common for multiple deer to cross the highway at one time, usually in single file. So if you see one deer, it’s time to slow down and pay attention. “If the deer is in the road and does not move, wait for the deer to pass and the road is clear. Also pay attention to ‘Deer Crossing’ signs. Slow down when driving through areas known to have a lot of deer,” he said.
The best defense against deer collisions is to pay attention. But some accidents cannot be prevented. Some experts advise that if a deer appears in front of your car, it’s better to brake knowing you will hit the deer anyway rather than try to swerve around it and risk an even worse collision.
Some drivers, hoping to spare both themselves and the deer from a nasty crash, use gadgets called “deer whistles” that attach to the outside of a car with a sticker. These plastic, horn-shaped devices cost about $5 each and purport to emit a high-pitched whistle as air flows through them, with high frequency sound that is outside the range of human hearing but loud enough to scare a deer away from the road.
However, a recent study by the University of Georgia found that many deer whistles do not make enough sound to be heard by a deer, or may not even create sound at all. In Utah researchers drove vehicles around 150 groups of free-ranging animals, mules and deer, and observed how they reacted to cars with and without deer whistles. The study found they behaved the same with or without whistles, indicating that the whistles do not work.
A later study, using electronic deer whistles that were louder and more reliable, also found deer didn’t react to the whistle or moved into the roadway to investigate it.
One bit of technology that might actually work to avoid hitting a deer is adaptive headlights, which turn slightly as the steering wheel turns, allowing the driver to see the road ahead better on unlit, curvy roads where deer might be lurking.
But no amount of defensive driving or gadgetry is guaranteed to prevent a crash. And as the Ewing accident demonstrated, what happens after the collision with the deer is important too. Baldolato said it’s important to brake while holding firmly onto the steering wheel so as not to swerve and lose control of the car. “Stay calm and move your vehicle to a safe place if possible,” Badolato said. “This may mean pulling over to the shoulder of the highway. If you can’t move your car or the animal is blocking traffic, alert the authorities so they can clear the roadway.”