Anyone who has ever driven on a highway or rural road in the early morning or after dark – especially in the fall – has a pretty good idea of an ever-present, lurking danger.
According to the Kansas Department of Transportation, nearly one in six vehicle crashes across the state in 2018 involved a deer. That year, there were 10,734 crashes that were deer-related, roughly 16.5% of all reported crashes on the state’s roadways.
KDOT also notes that the majority of deer-vehicle collisions occur between October and December, when deer are mating and on the move, looking for secure habitat.
While a keen eye can help drivers avoid an unintended encounter, Kansas State University wildlife specialist Charlie Lee said early findings of a research project may provide a valuable assist.
“There is a project being done at the NASA Plum Brook Station near Sandusky, Ohio by scientists at the National Wildlife Research Center, in which researchers are looking at ways to make vehicles more apparent to deer,” Lee said.
He notes that deer may be disoriented by vehicle headlights and do not immediately recognize cars. Thus, cars become something of a “high speed predator” that deer fail to flee from until it’s too late.
The new study focuses on a lighting system for the car that illuminates a larger portion of the vehicle’s front surface than standard headlights alone. In early work, researchers have found that the new lighting system takes advantage of the deer’s ‘flight behavior,’ or its natural instinct to avoid predators.
“Their results are surprising in that the interactions between deer and vehicle decreased,” Lee said. “They considered a dangerous interaction to be when wildlife and a vehicle get within 50 meters of each other. That decreased with the use of light shining back toward the vehicle.”
In fact, the wildlife researchers noted a big difference: the number of dangerous interactions fell from 35% to 10%.
“The deer were perhaps better able to see the vehicle rather than being blinded by the lights,” Lee said. “They recognized it as something that was dangerous and got out of the way or did not cross the road in front of that vehicle.”
Previous methods to spook deer from the road – such as whistles, roadside reflectors and mirrors, repellants and others – don’t seem to work. “The only thing that seems to have been effective over the years is roadside fencing,” Lee said. “When you put adequate fencing up in the right locations with animal overpasses or underpasses, we seem to see a substantial reduction in collisions with animals.”
The National Wildlife Research Center is in the process of obtaining a patent for its lighting technology, so the product is not yet on the market, Lee said.
“They have said that future work is necessary to fine-tune the approach, keeping in mind whatever species is most at-risk,” he said.