Mating deer make driving conditions hazardous

It's mating season for Georgia's resilient deer herd, and daylight-saving time is finally gone.

The change in deer movement -- and peak traffic timing -- spells trouble for motorists, according to experts who say this is the prime season for deer-vehicle crashes.

Columbia County, where suburbs sprawl into dense whitetail habitat, consistently ranks among Georgia's top counties for deer accidents, according to Emergency Services Director Pam Tucker.

This season, she said, accident numbers are already high -- and might set a record.

So far this year, county officials have recorded -- through carcasses retrieved by Animal Control officers -- 432 strikes, including 81 in October. The total for all of 2007 was 394.

With the two most-active months remaining, it is almost a certainty the annual total will exceed the high of 472 recorded in 2003, she said.

Why so much movement? One reason is breeding season, according to senior biologist Don McGowan, of Georgia's Wildlife Resources Division.

Deer mating occurs between October and early December, he said. "This greatly contributes to the increased movement of deer, bringing them across roadways."

Repairs to vehicles damaged by deer strikes provide a boost to many body shops and keep insurance estimators busy.

"We're definitely seeing more of them this time of year," said Denny Gardner, the owner of Riverfront Collision Center West in Evans.

State Farm Insurance, which tracks deer accidents nationwide, ranks Georgia as a medium-risk state and South Carolina as a high-risk state, based on a formula that includes deer population, insurance claims and the number of registered motor vehicles.

The company projected 41,874 deer accidents in Georgia this year, which computes to a 1-in-198 chance based on 8.2 million registered vehicles. South Carolina projections forecast 23,174 accidents, or a 1-in-149 chance based on 3.5 million registered vehicles.

The average property damage cost of these incidents was just more than $2,950, up 2.5 percent from a year ago, State Farm reported on its Web site.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, there are about 1.5 million deer-vehicle collisions annually in the U.S., causing $1.1 billion in damage.

A study by the Highway Loss Data Institute found that 223 people died in animal-vehicle crashes last year, up from 150 in 2000 and 101 in 1993.

Statewide, there are more than 1 million deer in Georgia, and hunting typically helps control the size of the herd. Last year, Georgia's 291,000 hunters killed 350,715 deer.

Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119 or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.

DRIVING TIPS

- Deer are unpredictable. A deer standing on the side of a road might bolt into or across the road rather than away from it when startled.

- One deer usually means more. Slow down when a deer crosses the road in front of you; deer generally travel in groups, so if one crosses, be prepared for others to follow.

- Deer are most active at dawn and dusk -- the same time most people are commuting to and from work.

- Autumn is the most active time for deer because of breeding season and changes in food sources.

- Winter grasses planted on road shoulders also lure deer to highways during cold weather.

- Drive with high beams at night when possible, and watch for eyes or movement ahead.

Source: Georgia Wildlife Resources Division