Would you like to know the two things that make me most uncomfortable as a motorcyclist? They’re both four-letter words: Deer and Text. Sadly, they’re both things that we—as motorcycle riders—know only too well. Today, I’d like to talk a little about the former.
As I sit here, looking out over the trees, I see the first signs of fall here in the North Georgia Mountains. Glorious summer is preparing to give way to spectacular fall. It’s a bittersweet sight for me. There are still plenty of good riding days ahead, and mother nature is preparing to give us her yearly swan-song of glorious colour to further enhance our rides. Along with that, though, comes the knowledge that colder weather is on its way, leaves are on the ground, and that we need to be even more watchful for the enhanced danger from our wood-dwelling fauna—most notably the deer.
In the last two weeks alone, I have had three close encounters with deer while out riding. In all instances, they have suddenly darted out in front of me from cover beside the road just as I have drawn level with them. I have a mental picture of the head deer crouching down behind cover as I approach, a restraining cloven hoof held back to his eager posse. “Wait for it, wait for it! Remember what I told you: not until you see the whites of his eyes… Now!” Hey, just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.
Here are some worrying statistics: The NHSA, in the US, estimates that there are 1.5 million crashes annually with deer in the US alone. 10,000 injuries, and 175-200 fatalities. Even more disquieting for us riders is the estimation that over 74% of motorcycle-deer collisions result in injury to the rider.
They are depressing statistics indeed, and the situation is only getting worse as we encroach more on and more on the deer’s habitat. With that in mind, I’d like to talk about what we can do to better the odds with capricious Bambi.
As with any wildlife encounter, there is little we can do to predict when an encounter will occur, but there are some things we can keep in mind about deer habits that may go some way to know when we are most at risk.
- Local knowledge can be invaluable. Deer have a surprisingly small territory — often less than a mile, so will often be found in the same area. Knowing these areas, and taking extra care when travelling through them can help immensely.
- Deer are most active at dusk and dawn.
- Deer are social animals. If you see one, expect more.
- Deer migration and mating season is roughly from October though December. Knowing this can prompt us to take special care at these times of year when they are most active and mobile.
- 90% — yes 90% — of deer strikes occur between dusk and dawn on two-lane roads.
Personally, having hit a deer at 65 MPH (the deer died and I managed to stay upright with little more than a bruised leg, and $1,500 repair bill), I prefer to take no chances with them. I would recommend taking the following precautions:
- If deer activity is at all suspected, such as when riding at night in rural areas — especially at dusk and dawn, I recommend riding at a much slower pace than normal — in preparation for an emergency stop.
- If there are following vehicles, make efforts to let those vehicles pass. The last thing you need to worry about when braking hard for a deer is the very real possibility of following vehicles crashing into you from behind. There is also a small measure of protection afforded from following a larger vehicle in such circumstances.
- Remember to keep a good distance between yourself and any vehicles in front. Remember the two-second rule — as a minimum. You gain a much better view by holding back, and you will often benefit from any vehicle’s actions ahead.
- Try to maintain a healthy buffer zone between you and the sides of the road. Sometimes, in high-risk areas, this means giving up normal positioning to create that buffer zone. In that case, you will need to slow down to compensate for the lessened view and visibility that giving up your optimal position has created. This also means that, at night, when travelling on a multi-lane road (freeway/motorway), and there are no other vehicles around, I will choose to ride in the centre lane to afford the best, and equal, buffer from both sides of the road.
- Good lights are a great help in spotting deer. If you find yourself often riding at high-risk times, and/or in high-risk areas, I would consider doing what you can to upgrade your lights – especially any that can better your view to the sides of the road. Of course, use high-beam when there is no traffic.
- Consider a long blast on your horn when you first see deer. This can certainly not be relied upon.
- Flashing or dimming your lights can sometimes help to snap the deer out of its reverie if the deer goes into the infamous “deer in the headlights” mode.
- When deer first launch into action, their first leap is forward, before they start their evasive manoeuvres. If a deer is facing into your path, extra special care is called for.
Unfortunately, deer are extremely unpredictable animals. They seem to react more to proximity than to noise and light. This means that they will often seem unfazed by your presence until you are very close to them, at which point, they will launch into action, and begin the familiar zig-zag patten of avoidance. Sadly, that evasive action is very often directly into your path. Nobody said they are the smartest animal!
I have sometimes had success with sounding my horn to prompt them into movement from a distance, but this certainly cannot be relied upon. Because of their unpredictability, I tend to brake, and slow to a walking pace, or even stop to give them time to disperse, upon first spotting one.
Swerve or Brake?
Let’s hope it never comes to a collision, but it’s worth here discussing a couple of points about strategies if a collision is imminent. If a collision with a deer seems unavoidable, it is best to hit it straight-on. If you can swerve to avoid it without encroaching into oncoming traffic, then it is worth a try. This is where your well-practised skill with steering — and particularly counter-steering — will come into play. When it comes to the actual impact, though, I would hit it when upright, and release your brakes momentarily before impact.
Remember I started this post talking about the two four-letter words that concern me most? It’s difficult to know which is the worse: Deer or Text. Both deer and texting drivers are extremely unpredictable animals. When the deer start texting, we’re done for.