Report: auto accidents involving deer still increasing across North Carolina

December 28, 2000

CHAPEL HILL - Automobile accidents involving deer across North Carolina increased from 11,503 in 1998 to 12,233 last year, according to a new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study.

Deer caused 5.6 percent of all reported N.C. driving accidents in 1999, up from 5.4 percent the previous year, the analysis of all N.C. motor vehicle crash records showed. Reported mishaps involving the fleet and flighty animals grew by 6.3 percent over the 12 months, researchers said.

"From the many anecdotal reports we've received, these figures probably are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the real number of deer-motor vehicle crashes," said Dr. Donald Reinfurt, deputy director of the UNC Highway Safety Research Center. "That's because records are generated only when police officers write narratives about crashes and include the word 'deer.' When there's less than $1,000 damage and no injuries, which often is the case, the crashes are usually not reported at all."

Reinfurt conducted the research with computer analyst Eric A. Rodgman in what has become an annual effort. The UNC center continues the computer runs as a public service since the first time they did it, they were "flabbergasted" at the results, he said. "It continues to amaze me that more than one out of 20 N.C. reportable crashes involve a deer," Reinfurt said. "In a few counties, it's a third or more."

N.C. mountain counties recorded relatively few deer crashes in 1999. Eastern counties showed the highest rates overall.

"Forty-two percent of North Carolina's deer crashes occurred down east compared to 26 percent of the state's total number of crashes happening there," Reinfurt said. "Forty-nine percent of deer crashes were in the Piedmont, but there were a lot more here because more cars are on the roads. More than 60 percent of all N.C. traffic accidents occurred in the Piedmont."

Hyde and Tyrrell counties both showed about 10 times the state average for the percentage of automobile accidents involving deer. The former, one of the state's smallest counties, recorded 54 crashes that involved deer and 88 that did not. Mecklenburg, the largest, showed 27,289 crashes, of which 228 involved the animals.

Other counties with especially high rates were Caswell, Jones, Washington, Greene, Duplin, Gates, Chowan and Chatham. Those with the lowest were Graham (which had none in 1999), Haywood, Jackson, Swain and Buncombe. Guilford County recorded 323 deer crashes, Johnston, 274; Orange, 253; Alamance, 275; Pitt, 375; and Wake, 621.

Because deer are far lighter than automobiles and other obstacles, only 8 percent of such accidents involved personal injury compared with 45 percent of all crashes, Reinfurt said. Alcohol and speeding are seldom reported in crashes involving deer whereas in about 30 percent of fatal crashes alcohol is involved. Half the accidents occurred among drivers ages 26 to 45, and almost 60 percent of such drivers were male.

Fall and early winter see half the year's deer crashes, which Reinfurt called "repair shops' bread and butter," researchers found. Half happened on county roads, a quarter on state roads, 17 percent on U.S. routes and only a small percentage on interstates and in towns. Almost three-fourths occurred between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., and half took place between October and December.

"We recommend that people drive slower at night where deer are likely to be, and if you see one run across the road, slow down because they usually are more around," he said.

"Among our findings were drivers were several times more likely to run off the road to avoid deer and to overturn -- or after hitting them -- than they would in a regular accident," Rodgman said. "Since we're now in the period when deer are out foraging and moving around more, we hope drivers will be especially careful driving at night and on secondary roads."

N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles' records enable the UNC-CH scientists to study police narratives via computer and thus discover recurring driving problems, he said. Few states have such good computerized records.

North Carolina's deer population now stands at between 950,000 and 1 million animals, said Scott Osborne, big game program coordinator at the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. In 1910, only 10,000 deer roamed the state, and in 1980, there were about 350,000.

Besides the 202,000 deer taken by hunters in 1999, unknown thousands of others died after being hit by cars and trucks, Osborne said. "I estimate that between 10,000 and 12,000 deer are killed on highways each year, out of a total deer mortality of about 314,000," he said. "In a lot of accidents, deer are not killed and often not even injured."

Top months for deer movement -- like auto accidents involving deer -- are October, November and December, Osborne said. Bucks become aggressive and territorial during the fall rut, driving away younger male competitors.

"In 1995, we peaked at about 1,039,000 deer, and our deer herd has been fairly stable for about the last five years," he said. "The increasing number of accidents involving deer likely is due to a combination of factors, the most important of which is a steady increase in the number of vehicle miles driven on North Carolina highways each year."

Other factors affecting deer and traffic accidents are more roads and gunfire during the hunting season that keeps the animals moving, he said. Between summer and fall, the deer diet changes as well, Osborne said.

"They go from eating chiefly grass and leaves to acorns, corn and other crops. That carbohydrate diet gives them more energy and makes them more active."

About 8 percent to 10 percent of the state's deer herd dies each year from a viral illness known as hemorrhagic disease, he said.
Note: Reinfurt and Rodgman can be reached at (919) 962-8719 (w). They have data on deer crashes for every N.C. county. Osborne, who works out of his home, can be reached at (919) 776-6017 or via e-mail at

Highway Safety Research Center Contact: Emily Smith, (919) 962-7803.
Contact: David Williamson, (919) 962-8596.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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