CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The bad combination of deer hormones and motor vehicles is keeping tow-truck drivers, body shops and insurance adjusters busy these days, amid signs that the number of collisions between animals and motor traffic is worse than ever.
“This is the time of year when the deer get active,” said Chris Matthews, natural resources manager for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Park and Recreation. “Unfortunately, that increased activity sometimes brings them in contact with drivers.”
State transportation officials in North Carolina say there has been an average of 19,500 animal-related crashes in each of the last three years, 90 percent of which involve deer. That is more than twice the average number of deer-related crashes in the late 1990s.
And a recent report from State Farm Auto Insurance ranked the Carolinas as being among 16 states rated “high-risk” for deer/car crashes.
In many cases, the collisions have taken place on suburban or rural roads, where most people would expect them. The N.C. Highway Patrol cited a crash last week on N.C. 16 near the Lincoln-Gaston county line, where a woman driving the car was not seriously hurt, though her car was heavily damaged.
But the deer problem has become urban.
Last month, a section of the John Belk Freeway in Charlotte’s uptown was closed for a half-hour during the busiest part of the morning commute because a deer had wandered onto the roadway. The deer was struck and injured, but wandered off the road.
“More deer are being seen in densely populated areas,” State Traffic Engineer Kevin Lacy said. “Drivers need to be alert at all times.”
While the number of overall auto crash claims has dropped by 8.5 percent in the last three years, the number of collisions involving deer is up almost 8 percent, according to State Farm Insurance.
“We have known for quite a while that the frequency of auto insurance claims has been declining,” said Chris Mullen, technology research director for State Farm. “But whatever is causing that trend is obviously not impacting deer-related crashes.”
Matthews said deer become more active from October into early December because of breeding practices. “The bucks will start dropping their antlers, and that makes them less attractive,” he said. So, he added, the bucks look for mates in the fall, before the antlers fall off.
State Farm’s study said November is the month with the most deer-vehicle crashes – 18 percent of the annual total.
Adding to the problem is the growth of the deer population. Wildlife experts say deer can thrive in urban areas.
“They’re able to use a variety of habitat,” Matthews said. “They don’t need a forest in order to survive.”
Matthews said park rangers studied the deer population at Reedy Creek Park, in the fast-growing northeast part of Mecklenburg County, a few years ago. He said they found 70 to 80 deer per 100 acres. Large populations also inhabit areas of south and southeast Mecklenburg County, and large parts of the north and northwest parts of the county.
“We seem them everywhere,” said Tom Emch, owner of Matthews Towing and Automotive, whose drivers often are sent to tow vehicles damaged in collisions with the animals. “We’ve towed a lot of cars that hit deer in urban areas of Charlotte.”
Those who have hit a deer usually describe the same experience – the animal seemingly came from nowhere, leaping from the side of the road into the travel lanes. Motorists rarely have time to stop.
“The impact is intense,” Emch said. “We’ve had them hit our trucks. As big as the trucks are, it still does some damage.”
Emch said a few years ago, a deer went through the windshield of a car near Harris Boulevard and Idlewild Road in east Charlotte. That driver was hospitalized.
No drivers are immune. A York County sheriff’s deputy recently hit a deer, his dashboard camera capturing video of the collision.
State transportation officials say more than 3,500 people have been hurt in crashes with deer in North Carolina since 2009. More than 2,000 have been hurt during that same period in South Carolina. Sometimes the crash is even more serious. There have been at least 17 deaths in North Carolina in deer-vehicle collisions over the past three years.
“Heaven help you if you hit one at full speed,” said Matthews, who hit a deer at low speed a few years ago. “It’s a very traumatic impact.”
Often – as in the case of the crash on N.C. 16 last week – the force of the collision is strong enough to deploy the air bags.
“Sometimes, the car is totaled,” Emch said.
Experts say it is best for motorists to hit the deer, rather than trying to avoid a collision. They say many of the injuries and deaths in crashes with deer happen when drivers swerve to avoid hitting the animal, then collide with another vehicle, a tree or some other obstacle.
“If you can’t avoid a deer, it is better to hit it than to lose control of your vehicle and cause a bigger accident,” Lacy said.