There are six main species of deer in the UK and the 1.5 million of them living in the wild cause up to 74,000 traffic accidents every year in the UK. Several human fatalities result from these accidents, as well as several hundred serious injuries. At this time of the year you are more likely to hit a deer because they are mating and are therefore active. Statistics show that October to December and May are the worst months, and the worst times are from sunset to midnight and around sunrise. It’s not just the UK, either; deer are a problem throughout continental Europe.
Ideally you would adjust your driving habits so that you avoid driving when deer are active, but that might not be possible for you. Deer have got limited road sense and when it’s dark they will be blinded by your lights, unable to see an exit.
Heed deer warning signs
Signs like the one above are posted where deer are likely to cross. However, deer can be found in many woodland areas, so be vigilant at all times. Drop a few mph off your speed to give you that extra time to react and stop.
Your scanning of the road needs to change, too. When driving in wooded areas you should be paying more attention to the roadside verges. Deer are well camouflaged.
Deer behaviour on the roads
Deer tend to congregate in herds so if you see one cross the road ahead it might be followed by others. They are easily startled and could run out of the forest to escape a perceived danger like someone’s dog. Deer are likely to freeze in your high beam headlights. This is made worse with the number of extremely quiet vehicles on the road as deer won’t hear the vehicle before they are dazzled by your headlights. Drive with your high beam headlights on when there is no other traffic around as this gives you more visibility of deer ahead – you are likely to see their eyes in the distance – but as soon as you’ve spotted the deer, turn your lights to low beam. If the deer still appears disorientated, then you may have to drop down to sidelights so that it can see a way away from your vehicle. This also applies to other nocturnal animals such as rabbits.
Avoiding a collision with a deer
If you spot a deer and you have time, immediately check your mirror as you will need to know what other traffic is around you to assess what actions you can take. Don’t assume it will be afraid of your vehicle – many deer live by roads and hear traffic all the time.
In a car or heavy vehicle it’s usually better to hit the deer than hit a tree or another vehicle. Only in the split second before impact can you decide whether it’s safe to swerve. Of course, if you swerve, the deer might also jump the same way. Swerving unsettles your vehicle, leading to more chance of you losing control. If it’s necessary for your to hit the deer, keep hold of your steering wheel but be aware that the airbag almost certainly will deploy if you hit it at sufficient speed. There is the risk that you will take the deer’s legs from under it and the body of the deer will hit the windscreen. Even small deer can weigh 50kg.
If you are riding a motorbike, swerving by using countersteering can be effective but, again, depends on the circumstances. Your smaller profile means you have more options for manoeuvring, but you will have less lateral grip than many four-wheeled vehicles and you also put yourself at risk of a hitting a slippery patch of road and having a lowside or highside accident. As you should be doing as much of your braking in a straight line as possible, leaning the bike over reduces your braking ability and can cause a skid.
If there are no other cars following you and you have anti-lock brakes, apply your brakes as hard as you can in order to stop as far before the deer as possible. Using your horn might frighten it out of the way. Once you have stopped put your hazard warning lights on if the deer doesn’t move away so that vehicles behind you know that you are stopped.
If you injure a deer, report it to the police who will be able to tell you the best local contact to help it. Don’t try to touch it as it could try to escape, injuring itself further or injuring you.
You wouldn’t want a 190kg stag coming through your windscreen horns first (and if you’re riding a motorbike, hitting a deer can be catastrophic), so take care driving and watch out for deer on the roads.
Darren has owned several companies in the automotive, advertising and education industries. He has run driving theory educational websites since 2010.