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10 Safe Driving Tips | Driving Your Way Through A Wisconsin Winter

Oh, Deer!

As Fall fades to Winter in the Northwoods, people are busy readying themselves for the coming months finishing up yardwork and winterizing the car, hanging Christmas lights and planning holiday menus, tuning up the snowmobiles and putting finishing touches on the ice shack. It's a great time to be living in the Northwoods as the colorful Fall foliage gives way to bare tree branches sagging under the weight of sparkling lily-white snow. The temperature dips and the clear, clean waters of area lakes turn to diamond-hard ice that will serve as simple roadways, connecting opposite lakeshores, until the ice melts back into the Spring-warmed waters.

Yes, the Northwoods are a truly beautiful place to call home but people aren't the only residents that are busy bustling about during the Fall our local deer population is quite active in the later months of the year, as well. Unfortunately, all of this activity often leads to even more vehicle deer collisions than normal during the Fall and Winter months.

At Nicolet Service Center, we see a fair number of accidents caused by deer collisions and, while some are fairly minor, others can be devastating. As a service, we've compiled a number of things to keep in mind as you travel across the Northwoods that, hopefully, will minimize your odds of meeting a deer head-on in your lane. Of course, there is no way to guarantee that you will never hit a deer. With that in mind, we believe that your best defense lies in knowing what to do to when you see deer along the roads and preparing yourself for quick, yet calm, thinking should you be faced with a deer jumping out in front of your car.

Be sure to share the following tips and ideas with your loved ones - especially new drivers - to keep them safe, too. Drive carefully and enjoy the holiday season - we hope we don't see you real soon!

A Little Deer Data

Currently, a typical year across the state of Wisconsin will see nearly 45,000 deer struck and killed by motor vehicles. That's roughly 12,000 more than just a decade ago. Tragically, humans can also lose their lives or be injured when caught in a vehicle/deer collision - 7 people died and over 730 were hurt in 1997 alone which is more than 2 times the number of fatalities than in 1996. As more roads carry more traffic to more areas of the state and deer are forced to cross these roads to find food, shelter, and mates, the number of car/deer collisions is likely to continue to increase.

While deer are certainly present in residential and city areas, the bulk of vehicle /deer collisions occur on roadways that travel through our fertile farm and dairy lands and through the thousands of acres of forests that make up our beautiful state. A recent Michigan study showed that the increase in vehicle miles traveled is 2 times more likely to have an influence on the number of vehicle/deer collisions than changes in the size of the annual deer herd. Every year, Wisconsin drivers travel an additional 800 million miles more on rural highways than in the previous year. As these numbers increase so do the odds that you will be forced to make the split-second decisions required to avoid or minimize a vehicle/deer collision.

Deer accidents can happen any day of the year at any time of the day - diligence is required to reduce your chances of striking a deer no matter when you drive on Wisconsin roadways. However, as we move into Fall and Winter, it is even more important to be aware that there may be deer springing up in the path of your vehicle.

A number of factors influence deer activity year-round though there are 3 things that tend to have a greater influence in the Fall months - food, mating, and the hunting season. Let's examine each:

    1. Food
    2. As you may know, deer are herbivores, which means that they depend on vegetation for sustenance. As Fall approaches, the forests and woods dry out. Vegetation dies and trees drop their leaves, which forces the deer to leave the relative security of the forests to forage for adequate food. This often means that deer will be edging closer to roadways as they seek out the grass and vegetation along the roads and highways. In areas of recent road construction, for example, there may be freshly seeded grass or newly laid sod. Even if deer are not actually feeding on the grasses alongside roadways, they will be forced to cross the roads to continue to search for food. This can often mean that they are many more deer crossing particular areas of roadway during the Fall months.

    3. Mating
    4. In late October and early November, deer enter their annual mating/breeding season. As bucks instinctually pursue does with the goal of mating, they will often be less cautionary near roads or highways. This can lead to not only the bucks being more likely to enter or cross the roadways but also does will be chased into traffic by the bucks. It may be hard for humans to understand that deer (like many animals) cannot control their instincts nor think logically. When pursuing a possible mate or being pursued by, deer do NOT have the ability to stop and think about the consequences of jumping into the road and in front of a car, truck, or other vehicle. This lack of control over their instincts is what often drives them directly into hazardous situations when normally they may have simply stopped and waited or turned and run when they see or hear vehicles.

    5. Deer Hunting Season
    6. With bow season and then gun season right after, deer are often in transit as they attempt to avoid becoming a target for the many hunters that venture into the woods each year. Again this is an instinctual behavior that many times brings the deer closer to roads and highways as they seek refuge from arrows and bullets.

When you realize that all 3 of the above conditions (along with specific local influences) affect deer every day, it's pretty easy to understand why deer are more active during the Fall and Winter than at other times during the year. As a driver, your best bet is to be aware that these months carry with them an increased responsibility on your part if you want to be safe. Drive smart, stay safe.

Practical Tips

So, what can you do to avoid hitting a deer? As mentioned before, there is NO guarantee that you will never have to deal with a vehicle/deer collision. Indeed, it is the rare Wisconsin driver that has never had close calls with deer at some point in their driving career. By following the tips below, we hope that at the worst all you'll have to deal with is close calls.

    1. Keep your eyes open and your senses ready for a deer to appear. Again, deer can appear seemingly out of nowhere at any time of the day or night, during any type of weather conditions, or during any season. There is really no "safe" time that it's O.K. to let your guard down when it comes to deer though there are plenty of times that you'll need to be extra careful. Simply knowing that deer are there on the sides of the roads should help you pay more attention during the higher-risk times though it's your responsibility to avoid distractions and stay focused on good driving skills.
    2. If you travel during the early morning hours or evening, the odds of coming across deer on or near the roads increases substantially as deer commonly move to and from feeding areas during these times of the day. Give yourself enough time to be able to reduce your driving speed during these dangerous hours and still make your destination on time.
    3. Never assume you're in safe territory just because an area is more residential or there is fencing up along the roadway. As we continue to expand our living areas, we encroach on the deer's natural habitat. What looks residential to us may have been forest not too long in the past and often deer are still adjusting to sharing their homes with us. They may be confused by the change in their habitat and will be forced to cross roads in order to find safe haven and continuing food supplies. As for fences, deer have been know to jump fences in their path as high as 6 feet! Ultimately, deer will continue to adapt to their changing living conditions and that means that they will continue to pop up in the darndest locations - residential, rural, or otherwise.
    4. Heed deer crossing signs. Areas marked with deer crossing signs typically have a higher rate of vehicle/deer collisions and you need to adjust your driving to reduce the chances that you'll be involved in a crash. You should reduce your speed in areas of deer crossings and pay attention to the sides of the roads as much as possible without jeopardizing your driving ability. Additionally, don't assume that areas not marked with deer crossing signs are free of deer - this is simply not the case.
    5. Know that driving conditions vary widely based on weather conditions, time of year, and time of day. As mentioned, early morning and nighttime are prime areas for possible vehicle/deer collisions due to increased deer movement during those times. In the Fall and Winter months, those times of the day not only start earlier they also last longer. At the peak of Winter, there can be as much as a 40% reduction in daylight driving hours and many days are overcast and/or inclement which can make it harder for drivers to spot deer quickly. All of this reduced visibility greatly increases your risk of hitting a deer. Combine reduced daylight with bad weather and slick road conditions and you easily have situations that call for extreme driving care. Slow down and don't tailgate other drivers!
    6. Learn to recognize the glowing eyes of deer and other animals along the side of the road and slow down as soon as you see any. Deer frequently travel in groups and where there is one, there are usually more. This is especially important should you see a deer jump out in front of a driver in front of you or on the opposite side of the road - you are not necessarily out of the woods as there may be more deer preparing to cross the road. It may be you that have to deal with making a quick decision to keep yourself safe!
    7. Read your vehicles Owner's Manual to understand just how your braking system works. As more and more vehicles come equipped with anti-lock braking systems, it's important to make sure that you know the best way to slow your vehicle down in the event of an emergency. Follow common sense ideas when it comes to icy or slick driving conditions and following other drivers from a safe distance. The more time you have to react to a deer in your path, the better the chances that you'll survive without a major incident. This also applies to dealing with other drivers should they be forced to avoid a deer collision as they may apply the brakes suddenly ahead of you or swerve into your lane of traffic in their attempt to avoid deer.
    8. Never operate your vehicle under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. Impaired driving is extremely unsafe as your ability to react quickly and safely can be diminished. Don't compound a hazardous situation with mind-altering substances - that's a sure recipe for disaster.
    9. If you are left with no safe options to avoid a deer collision, hit the deer. It seems counter-intuitive but many times it's safer to hit the deer, keep control of the vehicle, and accept the damages. You can do more damage to your vehicle by driving off the road or into other traffic than if you just hit the deer. It is never a pleasant experience to hit any animal with a vehicle and certainly not one the size of a full-grown deer however your alternatives may mean serious injury to you, your passengers, or other drivers on the road. In the event that you are forced to hit a deer, try not to panic, reduce your speed as much as safely possible, and keep your vehicle in your own lane. Get to the side of the road as soon as you can and stop your vehicle being mindful of traffic that may have been following you - they may be dealing with the remains of the deer strike that ended up in their path. Turn on your emergency flashers and exit your vehicle to assess the damages only after you're sure there is no risk to you or your passengers of being struck by other traffic. Call the local authorities by cellular phone or have a fellow driver phone them. If your vehicle is damaged so severely that it can't be safely driven in for repair, you'll need to call for a tow truck, as well.

Vehicle/deer collisions are nothing new and likely will continue to be a problem for generations to come if for no other reason than we continue to drive more miles through more deer country each year. Faster travel on bigger highways and freeways means less time to react and more possibility for accidents to occur. At Nicolet Service Center, we want you to be as safe as possible as you travel our highways and roads and hope that these tips will help keep you and your loved ones safe year-round!

J.Ramsey, 1999

Pedestrians & Bicyclists | Oh, Deer | Teen Driving| Car Care | Buckle Up America
10 Safe Driving Tips | Driving Your Way Through A Wisconsin Winter

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