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Motorcycle-Deer Collisions Through a Biologist Biker’s Eyes

The velvet covered branches were bobbing in the grass moving parallel to the highway . . . why? There was something underneath them, it had eyes, it was a buck mule deer running through tall grass parallel to the roadway. It all seemed so surreal. My right hand had a mind of its own and said “Hit the binders NOW you fool!” So I grabbed a big handful of front discs and hauled down to about 55 mph just as the buck touched pavement and arced through the air at such a trajectory that I I could have shaken hands with his trailing hooves. I had almost achieved every motorcyclist’s nightmare.

Despite all the advanced training, emergency braking practice, bike setup, and extra vigilance, deer seem to be a wild-card risk that can still leap out and bash any biker. This set me thinking. I am a wildlife biologist, big game hunter and a long distance motorcyclist, so maybe I dwell on these things more than most. I also know there is a vast wealth of motorcyclist knowledge, experience and a little mythology out there on deer and motorcycles. Here is one perspective, a few statistics, along with some wildlife biology thrown in. The statistics are telling – deer numbers have climbed to epic proportions with some 30 million in the US alone, which is about 60 times as many as the nation had in 1925. Thank protection, agricultural foods and predator removal. At least 10 states have deer populations numbering at least 20 percent of the state’s total human population. The problem for motorists is clear: we hit deer in staggering numbers, over one million times in 2010, according to State Farm Insurance statistics. Although miles driven increased 2 percent between 2008 and 2010, reported deer collisions increased tenfold. It seems to hinge partly on the numbers of deer. Over 200 human deaths per year are attributed to deer collisions, making them the most dangerous wildlife in North America, hundreds of times more deaths than caused by sharks. Interestingly, cell phones are 80 times more dangerous than deer with 16,000 deaths caused per year by drivers chatting and driving. For motorcyclists, the statistics are not good. On average, motorcycle-deer collisions end worse than car-deer collisions with motorcyclists representing about 70 percent of the human deaths from deer collisions despite the lower numbers of motorcyclists and riding being a seasonal activity in much of the country.

The often published advice to motorcyclists, while accurate, is boringly consistent in its repetition – install good lights, don’t ride at dusk and dawn, beware the November breeding season, be alert, and slow down. But is there more that we can learn to reduce our risks? Maybe. To make sense of the seemingly erratic reactions of deer, it helps to put oneself in the deer’s shoes, or hooves, as it may be. What options do they perceive and what might motivate them to do what they are doing? Why are deer at the roadside in the first place? Deer meet their biological needs of food, water, shelter and social activity in different areas which means they must travel locally each day. Often deer-crossing sites are a quirk of geology, fences, food supplies or river valleys that channel deer to certain logical crossing sites as effectively as bridges and crosswalks channel humans. Deer hunters understand the consistency of these daily patterns of movement and call them “funnels.” The probability of encounter is much higher here, and such sites deserve extra alertness. Deer-crossing sign or not, you can detect these areas even in dim or dark conditions. For example, watch closely when the land flattens out along a river bottom; when a solitary line of trees crosses the prairie; where a field edge abuts a forest edge, or; when a rock wall canyon finally has a traversable break in the landscape.

Travelling, running or traffic-nervous deer are a real handful because they make adrenaline-fueled dashes that could be on a collision course with your bike. The blue-green phosphorescent glow of their eyes is often still and staring at you as you approach. Even if you spot the deer, you may not see those eyes drop to a single eye shine as the deer turns, dips and dashes out. A second category of deer-crossings occurs when deer are drawn to roadsides to feed. Interestingly, and foolishly, roadsides are often planted in nutritious mixes of ground cover such as clover, dandelions, kudzu, mustards and low leafy greens. They are sometimes fertilized to ensure good soil coverage, they get full sunlight and are mowed to keep them in tender re-growth condition. Furthermore, browsing competition from grazing livestock is excluded by fences – a real deer smorgasbord! Roadside deer that are feeding are often in a very different headspace, rather stomach-space, than travelling deer. These individuals may be completely comfortable with traffic and will be spending a lot of time in head-down eating mode. Their eye movement is generally more relaxed and eye shine may be near ground level or moving up and 4 down smoothly. Still, they may wander out into the roadway as if they owned it.

It is still worth slowing and watching them carefully in case your eye shine analysis at 80 feet per second is flawed. The seemingly goofy things deer do right before running into you are often carefully calculated by the deer to avoid contact. The problem is, their math is off. It is as if they are doing their calculations in SAE for a metric world. Those deer lineages that have survived in North America since the last ice age carry in their DNA the instinctive escape mechanisms to avoid predators such as wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, human pursuers and even extinct short-faced bears and saber-toothed cats. This ancient and instinctive “memory” of pursuit is the reason sometimes given for the excessively evolved fleetness of North American Pronghorn (sometimes called antelope) who can run far faster than is needed to escape any existing predator. Their speed is probably a holdover from the era 15,000 years ago when there actually WERE North American versions of cheetahs giving them a run for their money. All prey species have what is called a “flight threshold” and such distances are pretty obvious for various species. Birders and hunters know that when hunted, Wild Turkeys flee at more than 200 meters, yet in the same conditions, Bobwhite Quail wait in concealment until they are almost stepped on before flying.

When a threat gets to the fringe of an animal’s comfort zone, they move away. If the threat leaps up well inside their comfort zone, like a springing cat or chasing wolf, the prey often rapidly re-prioritizes -which looks a lot like panic- as it dashes away. Flushed prey typically dash toward safety, even if that known safety is back on the other side the road they just crossed. Bang! So, to put these pieces together: deer perceive your motorcycle at some great distance and in short order, you have penetrated their comfort zone, and mere moments later you pose a full-on threat, causing a massive deer panic. Really now, what options did the deer have? Yes, it could simply stand still, trusting your charging, snarling predaceous motorcycle would bear down on it but ultimately, not press the charge, right? Now imagine you are standing in the open watching a charging bull or grizzly bear run directly at you. Would your nerves let you stand still and say “Oh, it will veer off at the last minute.”

When a deer sees say a BMW R1200 GS racing forward at 60 mph on an acute closing angle to his escape route, his evolutionary triangulation might say “Dash across this long black flat rock and into the trees before the shiny growling thingie gets its teeth into you!” The deer is not too concerned at first. After all, your bike is still 50 yards away, and he knows from instinct and experience that with such a generous lead he can outrun anything on two or four legs. The problem is deer have simply not evolved around wheels or with anything that can cover 50 yards in two seconds. As we motor into their inner sanctum of evasion, they sometimes freak out and make bad directional decisions into our travel path. They make it look almost deliberate sometimes.

Those deer that survive traffic for a few years can learn, however. Like people living near train tracks who stop hearing trains with time, deer undergo a process called “habituation” where they ignore traffic, having learned that they can indeed safely munch clover a mere 3 meters from a busy interstate. There is some suggestion that fawns can learn this from their moms, too. Such learning takes time and repeated exposure, however. Few people realize how differently time is measured in deer years. A 10-year old deer is ancient, and most die by gun, bumper or fang in their first 18 months. Few of the deer encountered along roadways are over three years of age and, thus, simply haven’t had the time to learn all about the vagaries of traffic patterns. Would you trust your 3-year-old in traffic? Heck, I worry about my teenagers! Still, some old does will stand still and watch for gaps in the traffic before crossing roads, thereby showing evidence of learning. The fawns and yearlings following her though haven’t a clue initially.

The older bucks too may dodge cars until October and November roll around, then, the creeping power of testosterone converts their priorities. Their typical focus on concealment and survival is supplanted by horniness. They are like 18-year old boys at a seashore bikini party where the daiquiris and tequila shots are free. Bucks in this condition can’t be bothered with bullets, arrows or motorcycles because the breeding season is short. Priorities baby, priorities. As they cast about seeking breeding opportunities, the bucks’ range and daily rate of travel more than doubles, their movements are more direct and more scent-focused, so they may ignore traffic. They follow does into habitats unfamiliar to them and when frightened, may dash off in random directions seeking escape, even if this carries them through sliding glass doors, fences, into water wells or right into traffic.

Of our deer species, white-tailed deer appear the riskiest because of their dashing behavior, because they prefer dense cover, and because they occupy every U.S. state except Utah. Mule deer and black-tailed deer of the 5 western states are a little calmer and tend to use more open habitats. Deer size varies ten-fold from the diminutive 25pound Key deer in Florida to the 250 pound boreal subspecies. Elk, moose, and pronghorns have their own idiosyncrasies, too. Elk are big, tall, very social and make large movements well into the dark hours each night to reach feeding areas. They are fond of agricultural fields and hay stacks and readily cross roads. It is possible to ride into a herd of them in the dark. Moose are even bigger, taller, blacker, less gregarious, and are darned near invisible in the dark. Their fur seems to absorb light but their four white stocking feet may shine in a very disorienting way. They are less agile and more phlegmatic, standing still in the roadway at times. One does not think to look upward at dangerous animals, but moose can reach 7 feet tall at the antler tips. Pronghorn are smaller animals of the wide open country. They run tremendously fast and move sort of arrow-like, meaning they are not so prone to rapid changes of direction. In some states it is illegal to hunt pronghorn within 500 yards of a roadway, hence they often congregate in this safety zone. Don’t even get me started on bison, cattle or horses on the roadways. Hit one of these and you just had a really bad day.

Reducing a motorcyclist’s risk is part situation analysis, part planning around probabilities and part rider reaction. Learn to recognize the high-risk situations or slow down during the dawn and sunset periods when the hoofed crowd is most active. This activity pattern is called crepuscular – a great scrabble word with a nasty ring to it. Learn your common routes and build a mental map of high wildlife-use areas. One road outside of Butte, Montana is popularly called “Venison Alley.” The probability planning part is using your mental maps to adjust to the changes in risks, route selection, traction and visibility. In low-light conditions, consider using a truck 2 seconds ahead in your lane as a rolling shield. Even if you prefer the outer tire track for travel, consider shifting to the middle tire track to add a meter of escape distance and center yourself from roadside deer. Really good gear will help a lot in contact with hard antlers, hooves and bones but also shield you from some abrasion in the tarmac slide that might follow a collision.

The rider reaction part involves developing a preventative search image for roadside deer – look for ears, the horizontal line of the back, the raised white tail on white-tails, or the cream-coloured rump patch on mule deer. At night look for chest-high reflective eyes that shine liquid blue green. Practice this identification when you see deer. Learn to read deer behavior, but don’t completely trust it. Deer must have adrenal glands the size of softballs, and alarmed deer behave totally differently from relaxed feeding deer. They can go from stony immobility to flat out sprint in a blink of an eye. Fear the alarmed deer’s sudden reactions.

In sudden deer encounters, I recommend you slow rapidly enough to chirp your front tire or activate your anti-lock sensors, especially when you see deer moving toward your travel path. This is controversial, however; some say keep a steady throttle to avoid provoking evasive reactions. I prefer to scrub off speed enough to provide more time and options for evasion or, at worst, to reduce speed at contact. Watch the deer’s movement, direction and pattern and remain aware that an unseen second, third or tenth deer may be following the first one across the road. Finally, if a collision seems a strong possibility, steer away from the animal’s head and toward the rear of the animal (assuming no oncoming traffic complications). Deer have a weak reverse gear and can’t pivot quickly on slippery tarmac. She may clear out of the way forward at the last minute.

If, despite all this, a collision seems inevitable, get the bike straight and stable, stay on the brakes until the last instant when you need your gyroscopic stability, brace, and try to stay upright. Many have hit deer and not gone down thereby avoiding the roadrelated injuries and additional bike damage. It might even be worthwhile ducking and letting pieces roll over you if the deer is mid-leap. Sometimes they squat like an NBA Center for a big bound which allows the bike to roll over them; even though you may bend forks, catch some air or get a little tangled up, it is better than a deer in the chest. Watch some You Tube video recordings to get a sense of the speed and violence of motorcycle-deer collisions. I am guessing you will want to slow down, too.

I have seen no evidence that horns, flashing lights or deer whistles work to move deer away; however, if they increase your awareness as reminders, they may have value that way. It is only polite to warn oncoming motorists that there are deer in the road. I like to flash my high beams and put my hands up on my helmet like antlers. They will figure it out. There are some things in motorcycling for which you simply cannot be fully prepared, like oil spills on the highway, flying debris from oncoming traffic, rain that morphs into hail, or deer erupting from a brushy roadside. Think about it and put as much in your favor as possible. Good luck and I hope you don’t get your deer this year

Lee Foote.

(biologist and rider that lives in Edmonton, Alberta)
 

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And don't believe for a moment that just because there is a near vertical bank on one side of you that there won't be any animals on it. As Jim and I were heading home from Alpine Saturday evening, two elk had crossed in front of us and decided to climb the near vertical bank, one actually made it, but the other one came tumbling down and recrossed the road still in front of us.
 
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Agree with the above, but not enough elaboration on benefits of ATGATT.
 

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Discussion Starter #4 (Edited)
Agree with the above, but not enough elaboration on benefits of ATGATT.
Doesn't need to be one, as it should be implied that it's being used if one is a serious motorcyclist in these conditions. The discussion revolves around the intersection between wildlife and a vehicle - motorcycle in our case.

The biologist simply points out - as best can be derived - the situation(s), from the animal's perspective.
 

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Agree with the above, but not enough elaboration on benefits of ATGATT.
I understand where you're coming from, but I think the education of what we can do to avoid them is at least equally if not more important. You have much more protection inside a car yet 30% of the fatalities occur there. I think the article had some pretty good suggestions, but in recent years I've observed behavior in the deer population that I find unusual. They seem to no longer be mostly nocturnal, and they have no fear of people or populated areas.

Sent from my SAMSUNG-SM-G891A using Tapatalk
 

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And don't believe for a moment that just because there is a near vertical bank on one side of you that there won't be any animals on it. As Jim and I were heading home from Alpine Saturday evening, two elk had crossed in front of us and decided to climb the near vertical bank, one actually made it, but the other one came tumbling down and recrossed the road still in front of us.
But they were beautiful that close up...once we stopped... :wink2:
 
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I understand where you're coming from, but I think the education of what we can do to avoid them is at least equally if not more important. You have much more protection inside a car yet 30% of the fatalities occur there. I think the article had some pretty good suggestions, but in recent years I've observed behavior in the dear population that I find unusual. They seem to no longer be mostly nocturnal, and they have no fear of people or populated areas.

Sent from my SAMSUNG-SM-G891A using Tapatalk
As a guy that used to do a lot of hunting, the deer tend to be more nocturnal the fuller the moon is and less so on dark and cloudy nights.
 
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...and, yet, it's moonlight that many seem to want to ride in, thinking it helps.

No, LOTS of aux lighting helps a small amount. :mrgreen:
 

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Nice read thanks for taking the time. I live in a fairly rural area and my big three are deer, turkey and sandhill cranes.
 

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I technically not a "wildlife" biologist, but I did live and work in a densely populated city most of my life. For several years beginning in the late 1980's we had a bad arson problem and way too many vacant buildings. Fires were often started in these vacant buildings by gangs or gang member wanna-be's. I suspect it may have been a gang initiation ritual - if you set a good fire, you have proved yourself worthy to be a member of the gang. Have you ever noticed that deer tend to hang out in groups (aka gangs)?Even though deer are supposedly not as intelligent as humans I've often wondered if they don't have a similar initiation ritual. In order to become a member of the deer gang, a deer needs to prove him or herself worthy. To do this the deer must jump out onto the roadway as a vehicle is approaching. The closer the deer can get to the oncoming vehicle without getting hit, the braver and more highly esteemed the deer becomes in the eyes of the rest of the deer gang. That's my scientific theory!
 

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I'M BY NO MEANS A BIOLOGIST BUT DID STAY IN A "MOTEL SIX" ….COUPLE TIMES. :wink2: IMOP NOT ONLY LOTS MORE DEER BUT SOOOO MANY PEOPLE WHICH MEANS MORE HOUSES WHICH MEANS THEY LOOSE THERE "NATURAL " HABITAT .SEE THEM ALL THE TIME IN PEOPLES BACKYARDS -IN THE CITY- THERE ADAPTING BUT STILL LIKE "THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ROAD " :serious::frown2: WHICH MEANS WERE GONNA MEET THEM UP CLOSE N PERSONAL. WHENEVER I SEE ONE IM APPROACHING I GIVE THE HORN ABOUT 10 "SHORT " BLASTS . THEY SEE ME ( MAKES AWARE ) OF ME . SO FAR SO GOOD . HAVE HAD PLENTY STOP N GO BACK OTHER WAY . EVEN AT NITE WHERE OUR HEADLIGHTS BLIND THEM AND THEY DONT HAVE A CLUE WHO/WHAT WE ARE . BE SAFE . DONT FORGET IF YA HIT ONE " I LIKE DEER JERKY " !!:laugh:
 
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I come from the wide-open Prairie...heck...my still-working wife is at a University that has the "Prong-horn" as its marquis. I've seen many a 'Horn and many a Deer over my 6+ decades but have never been in a motorcycle-venison contact...yet.

I have hit deer on the "Butte Hill" of I-15...four times. I never knew it was affectionately called "Venison Alley" before this article. I can only assume that we are talking about the same area. You haven't lived until you have used a car-wash on Harrison Avenue at 11:00 PM to ineffectively wash off deer poop from the whole side of your truck and towed boat!

I came across this fine Continent two weeks ago and am having great difficulty adjusting to just how long it takes to go so short a distance out here in the "East". So much so that I consistently find myself travelling in the dark. I have never, no NEVER, seen so many deer-like animals so very close to the roads. I responsibly use my deliberately mal-adjusted high-beam Pathfinder "lasers" along with my "blinding" HID lows coupled with my Honda LED fogs (whenever I can safely) for this very reason of Venison Avoidance. My left thumb hurts now but I am getting adept at finding the high/low switch accurately for the most part.

I still fight between competing avoidance tactics...Slow down...or Speed On. One fine day I'll learn!!
 

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I hate riding at night just because of deer/animals. The best avoidance in my book is to just slow down. Provides more reaction time.
 

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Nice write up....
I live in a city, where I don't usually see dear, BUT can you imagine, my surprise last week when I woke up @ 6:00 AM and looked out my back window, and actually saw two deer in my back yard...:hun1: then I thought Hmmmmmm :chef2: :chef3:

Ronnie
 

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I was raised in deer country and was taught a simple and nearly 100 percent effective deer replant trick. Blow your horn. Every morning I pass through areas that have deer next to the road. And every morning, I find a song on the radio, turn it up loud ( on the bike some times that's all it takes ) and then tap the horn to match the beat.. beep beep... beep beep.... If I'm not in the mood for music I'll just Toot.... toot toot... toot..... toot toot.. to my own beat. You can see dear scamper across the road just where the light can hit them.. EVERY SINGLE DAY!!!! I remember, I hit one about 18 years ago in my car cause I was just being lazy.... NEVER AGAIN.. So, if your in Warren county Va. one early morning, listen for the rhythmic horn... BEEP BEEP!! :smile2::wink2:
 

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I technically not a "wildlife" biologist, but I did live and work in a densely populated city most of my life. For several years beginning in the late 1980's we had a bad arson problem and way too many vacant buildings. Fires were often started in these vacant buildings by gangs or gang member wanna-be's. I suspect it may have been a gang initiation ritual - if you set a good fire, you have proved yourself worthy to be a member of the gang. Have you ever noticed that deer tend to hang out in groups (aka gangs)?Even though deer are supposedly not as intelligent as humans I've often wondered if they don't have a similar initiation ritual. In order to become a member of the deer gang, a deer needs to prove him or herself worthy. To do this the deer must jump out onto the roadway as a vehicle is approaching. The closer the deer can get to the oncoming vehicle without getting hit, the braver and more highly esteemed the deer becomes in the eyes of the rest of the deer gang. That's my scientific theory!

So the little b*sterds are just counting coup?


BTW, your comparison to human gang activity proves that deer are not less intelligent than humans. I would argue its the other way around.
 

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I was raised in deer country and was taught a simple and nearly 100 percent effective deer replant trick. Blow your horn. Every morning I pass through areas that have deer next to the road. And every morning, I find a song on the radio, turn it up loud ( on the bike some times that's all it takes ) and then tap the horn to match the beat.. beep beep... beep beep.... If I'm not in the mood for music I'll just Toot.... toot toot... toot..... toot toot.. to my own beat. You can see dear scamper across the road just where the light can hit them.. EVERY SINGLE DAY!!!! I remember, I hit one about 18 years ago in my car cause I was just being lazy.... NEVER AGAIN.. So, if your in Warren county Va. one early morning, listen for the rhythmic horn... BEEP BEEP!! :smile2::wink2:

We have a highway out here that is grooved so that when you drive over it, your tire noise plays the William Tell overture. Maybe we're onto something....Magic Carpet Ride by Steppenwolf, a little Roy Rogers maybe...??
 

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Great read. Middle of July, middle of day, he got me. We need a culling.
Agree. I view them as giant rodents. No real use for them except eating venison, but even that gets old after awhile. I could live without them on the planet, actually. LOL
 
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