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Deer, Oh Dear!

By David L. Hough

There are a lot of "booby traps" that the unwary motorcyclist can ride into, including innocuous-looking alleyways, raised pavement edges, railroad tracks, loose sand, sunken manhole covers, tar snakes, and white plastic arrows glued to the pavement. Most of those hazards occur in the city. Out in the country on those twisty back roads we love to ride, we can expect some different types of booby traps.

One major trap that can spring on us is a wild animal, especially wild deer. Deer are so delicate and demure that it's hard to think of them as a hazard. But when we come upon the sickening sight of a dead deer along the highway, we are again reminded of the danger, both to the animal, and to ourselves.

Animal strikes are a significant hazard for those of us who enjoy long-distance travel. Statistically speaking, vehicle collisions are the major motorcycling hazard, but as motorcycling experience builds and we get a little smarter, our risks of a car/bike collision should decrease. But the risk of animal strikes remains high because animals are so difficult to predict. Wild deer are found all over North America, in large numbers, their population is increasing, and they have habits and instincts that put them on collision courses with motor vehicles.

span style="line-height: 150%; font-family: Arial; font-style: italic">Photo: Yes, it's gruesome, but deer strikes are a real threat on country roads.

The typical deer strike occurs with the animal suddenly leaping in front of the vehicle, often at night. The vehicle slams into the deer, with sickening consequences. What's startling is the amount of damage even a small deer can do to a speeding vehicle. If the motorist happens to be a motorcyclist , the odds are high that both deer and biker will be seriously injured. What's so insidious about motorcycle/deer collisions is the unpredictability.

You may have ridden for hundreds of thousands of miles, proficiently avoiding thousands of left-turners, alley jumpers, edge traps, graveled corners, and decreasing-radius turns. Then, on some easy country ride, a deer suddenly leaps out of the woods into your path, and Thud! We don't have reliable statistics on motorcycle/animal collisions, because many accidents don't get reported. The famous "Hurt Report" gathered statistics from only motorcycle accidents in the Los Angeles area, where there are few wild deer. But animal strikes are a frequent enough problem elsewhere, that we should practice appropriate countermeasures on those rides that take us into deer country.

Deer Instincts

To understand what to look for and what to do about deer, let's consider their instincts and habits. Deer are cautious, and prefer to hide in the trees. They like munching on tender foliage. So, in the summer, expect wild deer in forested areas or riverbeds where the trees and underbrush provide lots of cover and fresh salad. That lush roadside grass the highway department keeps mowed is a dinnertime favorite.

That means you should expect deer feeding along the shoulder of the road in shady areas. In the daytime, a deer feeding on the road shoulder will have it's head down, so it may look like a log in the ditch, or a mossy boulder, or a crumpled cardboard box. When the head comes up, you'll immediately see those large ears, and perhaps a rack of antlers.

Photo: Deer Migration signs should set off your warning bells in Spring and Fall.

Danger At Night

While Antelope, Elk, and Moose munch away in plain view in the broad daylight, deer are more cautious. Deer seem to prefer hiding in the shadows in the daytime, and feeding at dusk and dawn. That means the risk of deer strikes increases when the sun is rising or setting. It's definitely something to think about when you are considering a night-time transit on a highway passing through one of those scenic National Forests.

At night, brown deerhide doesn't reflect much light, but deer eyes will reflect a brilliant white from your headlight, similar to a reflector. How do you tell if the reflector you see is on a post, or on a deer? Easy: the deer eye blinks. If you see a reflector winking back at you, odds are it is a deer, and it's facing in your direction.

DEER CROSSING

Why do you think those yellow DEER CROSSING signs get put up along certain sections of farmland or scenic forest roads? Would you think the highway department or the Forest Service hires game wardens to count deer migrations across the road? Wrongo, Big Dog. What really happens is that the road crew tallies the number of carcasses and shattered grills, and if the numbers are high on one particular section of road, morning after morning, they put up a sign. The same holds true for Antelope crossings in the grasslands of Wyoming and Colorado, and for Moose crossings in Northern Idaho, Montana, and New Hampshire. The point is, when you see a sign, you really should pay attention.

It's also helpful to observe that deer often stick together in groups of 3. That's because does often have twins. And sometimes last year's twins stay with mom while she raises this year's fawns, so the group may be 7. The point of that is to expect several deer even if you only see one.

Wild grazers such as deer tend to migrate in herds, moving towards higher elevations in the Spring, and returning to lower elevations in the Fall. They follow age-old migration routes that predate the highway by thousands of years. The importance of that to the touring rider is that risks are greatest where the highway crosses the migration areas. DEER MIGRATION signs should set off alarm bells in your head-bone in the Spring, and again in the Fall.

Those DEER signs are a big advantage to motorcyclists, if the situation registers between your ears. One good step is simply to slow down. Decreasing speed gives you more time to spot an animal, more time to react, and a greater ability to maneuver. OK, you may think, but how about that pickup truck on my tail? Well, if you're riding into a deer zone, why not be polite and let the pickup driver go first? By now, you should be able to figure out how to shake a tailgater, using some clever tactic other than just screwing on more throttle.

Photo: It's smart to brake, and let the deer do whatever they are going to do.

OK, let's assume you know you're in deer country, you realize it's the right time of year and hour of the night for a close encounter. You've spotted the DEER sign, momentarily pulled on to the shoulder to let the tailgater on by, reduced your speed 10 mph to give yourself more time to react, and covered the brake lever. Can we really spot a deer ahead in time to react? And what should we do if a deer does leap out? Should we just keep riding along at the same speed, or should we attempt some avoidance maneuver? Should you slow down and then accelerate by as you would for an aggressive dog? Should you prepare to swerve, as you would for a car emerging from an alley? Or should you prepare for a quick stop, as you would for a left-turner?

Unlike an aggressive dog, deer seem to react more to proximity than to sight or sound. A deer may not show much interest in you until you get close, whether your cafe racer has loud pipes or your GL1500 is just burbling along quietly. The deer may glance up at you, then nonchalantly go back to munching again. But when you get within 60 feet or so, the deer suddenly springs to action, jumping first straight ahead, then in a random zigzag "wolf-evasion" pattern. If it isn't obvious, the deer's first leap is in whatever direction it is facing. That's why hard braking is a smart evasive tactic.

Once the deer leaps into action, there isn't much time left for braking, so smart riders are already prepared to brake when riding into a suspicious area. Some of us brake hard when approaching any wild animal on the shoulder, as an automatic precaution. That's a primary reason for shaking tailgaters and keeping some right hand fingers curled over the brake lever in a deer zone, or anywhere there are wild animals.

When you suddenly realize that "log" in the left ditch has grown ears and antlers, or one of those white reflectors along the edge of the road starts winking at you at night, or a fawn tippy-toes out of the roadside underbrush, my advice is to practice a quick stop. If the deer doesn't leap out in front of you at the last second, great. Just remember about that second and third deer, or perhaps a horny buck right behind mom. If you're in the habit of making quick stops, you'll make a power stop automatically, and think about it afterward.

What about swerving? Its tempting to think that you might be able to maintain speed and slip on by, or swerve around the deer if it should leap out in front of you. But swerving assumes you can predict which way the deer will leap. The typical zigzag "wolf avoidance" pattern is random.

What about speeding up? After all, the greater your forward energy, the greater your impact force. Yeh, we've heard the folk tale of a motorcyclist riding at warp speed through the forest at night, and slicing a deer in half without dropping the bike. Even if that folk tale is true, the rider was extremely lucky, not clever or skillful. For every folk tale of slamming into a wild animal without getting hurt, there are several other reports of riders being seriously injured, and motorcycles destroyed. And if the winking reflectors you expected to punch through happens to be the eyes of an elk, moose, or bear, the odds lean strongly in favor of not walking away from the impact.

On the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state in 1997, a rider managed to centerpunch a brown bear that wandered out of the woods. After the impact, the bruised bear muttered something about stupid bikers, and meandered back into the forest. The motorcyclist was hauled off to Olympic Memorial Hospital, and spent the rest of his vacation getting sewn and screwed back together.

Photo: Trust us, you don't want to hit an Elk.

In the Rockies, you will see bear, elk, raccoon, porcupine, skunk, and various other critters you might enjoy watching, from a distance . In Texas, it's armadillo. In Louisiana and Florida you may encounter an alligator slithering across the road. Even a raccoon or porcupine is large enough to upset a bike if you hit it with the front wheel, so you probably don't want to try bouncing over any animal if you can avoid it.

Elk and Moose are common in Northern Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia. Elk may look stately and reserved, but they are big enough and feisty enough to attack people and motor vehicles, if challenged. In Alaska, British Columbia, and northern states, residents know better than to zoom up behind a moose on the road, blast the horn, and expect a 2,500 lb. Bull to move out of their way. If you observe a moose trotting down the road ahead, or even alongside the road, remember this: an adult moose is tall enough that the windshield on your Ducati probably wouldn't even tickle his stomach, and he is strong enough to flick a fully loaded VTX into the swamp with an easy toss of his rack. The moral is: give large animals lots of space and lots of respect.

Other Wild Ones

Of course wild animals aren't the only four-legged road hazards you'll encounter. Farm animals loose on the road can present a mighty big target. Cows seem to be very nonchalant about vehicles, so they generally just keep doing whatever they were doing. Horses are a lot more skittish and excitable, and are more likely to bolt in front of a vehicle, trot down the road, or kick out at anyone who gets too close. If you come upon a herd of cattle or a flock of sheep being driven across the highway (or even down the highway), don't be too eager to elbow your way through the herd. It's one thing to have a longhorn steer rub up against a fence post�it's a little more exciting to have a steer scrape his horn down the side of your bike. The drovers will get them off the road as soon as they can.

Illustration: Moose are fiesty enough to challenge you for road space, and big enough to win.

OPEN RANGE

An Open Range sign is more than a warning that there aren't any fences to keep cattle off the road. Open Range means the animals have the right-of-way over traffic. Think of it this way: the highway happens to run through the rancher's farm. The cattle belong there. You're a guest. It's up to you to get through the farm without injuring any of the rancher's livestock. Hit a steer, and you may get to purchase a locker full of beef in addition to some new bodywork for your bike.

Photo: Livestock on the loose. It's neighborly to notify the owners.

What About Whistles?

There are many different versions of ultra-sonic animal alert whistles available. The theory is that the whistles moving through the air make a high-pitched ultrasonic noise that alerts animals to your approach, and warns them to get out of your way. Given the potential for animal strikes, a passive animal warning device sounds like a great idea, eh? But there are a couple of niggling questions.

First, the whistles make noise in frequencies above human hearing. So how do you know if your deer whistles are actually working? If a big South Dakota juicybug lodges in the orifice, silencing the whistle, how would you know? And if your whistles are whistling, is the volume really loud enough to reach an animal several hundred feet away?

More to the point, let's assume the whistles do work, and that a deer ahead hears the media. What's the message? Is the noise a collision warning, a mating call, a challenge to fight, or simply an annoyance? Let's assume the deer receives the message as a collision warning. Does that stimulate the animal to run away? And if the deer does agree to run away, is it supposed to make a 180 and run back into the woods, or is it supposed to run straight across the road?

You can find glowing testimonials about reductions in deer strikes after whistles were installed. Just read the deer whistle sales brochures. You'll have to make up your own mind about whether sales brochures are hype or fact.

More importantly, my survival theory about motorcycle hazards is that you should always be prepared to get out of the way of the other guy, whether the "other guy" is a left turning Accord, or a left-turning alligator. Feel free to bolt on whatever magic talismans you want, including a BACK OFF mud flap, a pulsating headlight, a string of garlic, a rabbit's foot, or a pair of deer whistles, but the only reliable way to avoid a collision is to understand what's happening ahead and get out of the way of the other guys.


David Hough is a long-time motorcyclist and journalist. His work has appeared in numerous motorcycle publications, but he is best known for the monthly skills series " Proficient Motorcycling " in Motorcycle Consumer News, which has been honored by special awards from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Selected columns were edited into two books Proficient Motorcycling and More Proficient Motorcycling , both published by Bowtie Press. He is also the author of Driving A Sidecar Outfit and a pocket riding skills handbook,Street Strategies .


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