Jan. 13, 1999 CHAPEL HILL -- Deer cause more than 5 percent of all reportable driving accidents across the state, according to a new University of North Carolina analysis of 1997 N.C. motor vehicle accident records.
Although they cause few injuries compared with other crashes, since 1994 such deer-related mishaps are increasing at more than 10 percent a year and often result in extensive body damage to cars.
"This is without a doubt an underestimate since records are generated only when police officers write reports about crashes and include the word 'deer' in them," said Dr. Donald Reinfurt, deputy director of the UNC Highway Safety Research Center. "Many accidents in which deer played a role simply are not reported because there's less than $1,000 damage and no injury."
In 1994, police described about 8,000 automobile accidents involving deer, said Reinfurt, who conducted the research with computer analyst Eric Rodgman. In 1997, officers described 11,129. Complete records for last year are not available.
Some N.C. counties, especially in the mountains, had few "deer crashes" in 1997, he said. Eastern counties showed the most. In Hyde County, for example, deer caused two of every five, or 40 percent, of automobile accidents.
Other counties with high rates included Caswell, Tyrrell, Franklin, Jones, Greene, Bertie, Warren and Chatham. Those with the lowest were Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Buncombe, Swain and Mecklenburg.
Half of deer crashes, which Reinfurt called "repair shops' bread and butter," occurred in the last quarter of the year during fall and early winter, the researchers found. Half happened on county and local roads, a quarter on state roads and only a small percentage on U.S. routes and interstates and in towns. Almost three-fourths occurred between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.
"Only about 8 percent of these accidents caused injuries to the driver or passengers, while over 45 percent of non-deer crashes resulted in injuries," Reinfurt said. "Still, 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 usually others are in the vicinity."
N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles' records are especially valuable because they enable researchers to study police narratives via computer and thus discover recurring driving problems, he said. Few states have such good computerized records.
"The fact that police officers take the time and make the effort to write that a deer was involved has been very helpful and has made this study possible," Reinfurt said.
North Carolina's deer population now stands at about 900,000, according to Carl Betsill, research and regulation section manager at the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. In 1910, only 10,000 deer roamed the state, and in 1975, there were about 250,000.
Besides the 175,000 deer taken by hunters in 1997, unknown thousands of others die after being hit by cars and trucks, Betsill said.
"I estimate that the 400 to 600 deer we know are killed on highways each year are only about 10 percent of the total," said Scott Osborn, big game program coordinator at the commission. "In a lot of accidents, deer are not killed and often not even injured."
Peak months for deer movement -- like auto accidents involving deer -- are October, November and December, Osborn said. Normally gregarious bucks become aggressive and territorial during the fall rut, driving away younger bucks.
Other factors affecting deer and traffic accidents are increasing numbers of cars and trucks on the highways, 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," Osborn 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."
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