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Fall means crisper weather, a new school year, and mating season for animals. Animals can suddenly appear on the road any time of year, but they’re more likely to run into the road when it’s time to get frisky, leading to a spike in car accidents.

Deer – the biggest animal threat to road safety – cause 1.23 million car collisions annually, costing an average of $4,135 in property damage claims, according to State Farm. A collision can do more than wreak havoc on your vehicle. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 158 people were killed and over 10,000 injured in car crashes involving animals in 2014.

More Than Just Deer

Even though deer are the most common culprits, it’s not unusual for large animals such as elk, moose, cattle, and bears – or small animals like dogs, cats, raccoons, and turkeys – to dart in front of your car and surprise you. But sometimes swerving or stopping to avoid them can create a more dangerous situation, increasing your chances of colliding with other motorists on the road. The National Insurance Agency puts the odds of filing a claim from hitting a large animal such as deer, elk, or moose at one in 169. That probability more than doubles in October, November, and December, when deer tend to roam the roadways freely.  

“You can’t predict when or where an animal will cross the road, but you want to be cautious of where the traffic safety engineers have placed signs warning of animals crossing,” said Debbie Hersman, president and chief executive of the National Safety Council, an Illinois-based nonprofit that promotes health and safety.

That’s especially true if you’re driving in one of the five states where a driver is most likely to file a claim stemming from a collision with a deer, elk, or moose. West Virginia reports the most deer strikes, followed by Iowa, Montana, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota, according to State Farm data. Pennsylvania has the largest share of national claims with 126,275 incidents filed last year, this makes the Keystone State responsible for nearly 10 percent of the country’s deer claims. Most deer-related collisions are covered by the comprehensive portion of your insurance policy.

Prepare for the Worst

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Preparation is key to avoiding an unwanted animal encounter. You can take several steps during animal mating season to avoid colliding with one. Stay awake and alert – especially during October through December – and always wear your safety belt. Pay attention to deer crossing signs, scan the road for signs of nearby wildlife (especially in wooded or rural areas), and use extra caution in known deer zones. Deer often move in groups, so if you see one deer, others will likely follow.

Be aware that deer are especially unpredictable during mating season, particularly between dusk and dawn. On roads where animals are likely to frolic, you should slow down and keep a three-second following distance. The posted speed limits are for optimal conditions, so if you see signs of animals in the area, reduce your pace accordingly.

“It gives everyone a lot more space to maneuver and time to react,” Hersman said. At night when it’s harder to see the road in front of you, be sure to use your high beams. Adaptive headlights that adjust illumination when other cars approach work best.

Don’t Veer for Deer

In Michigan, where deer are abundant in the fall, the local AAA chapter debuted a slogan to remind drivers what to do if they’re in danger of crossing paths with a large animal. The “don’t veer for deer” campaign seen from overpasses along Michigan’s highways tells drivers that if a crash is unavoidable, it’s safest to brake firmly without swerving. Keep your car in your lane and bring yourself to a safe, controlled stop. Michigan’s Department of Transportation notes swerving to avoid hitting a deer and instead striking a tree or another car causes more motorist deaths and injuries than actually hitting the animals.

Flashing your high-beams or honking your horn at the animal in can have mixed results. Although some experts recommend it, the horn’s noise could send the animal running away from the road, freeze it in fear, or provoke it to rush toward you. “Animals are unpredictable,” Hersman said.

D’oh! I Hit a Doe

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If your car does strike an animal, there are several steps you should take to reduce the amount of damage and injury. Be sure to grip the wheel so that you don’t careen into another lane or off the road. When it’s safe, brake firmly and pull off the road, bringing your vehicle to a controlled stop at a safe spot and turning on your emergency flashers to warn oncoming vehicles of potential road hazards. Leaving your car at the scene can be dangerous for unsuspecting motorists, potentially causing even more accidents.  

If the animal is still in the road, be cautious about approaching it. If alive it’s likely to be confused, dangerous, and ready to attack. Don’t try to move it from the road unless you are convinced that it’s dead. Call emergency services if there are injuries and the police to report any property damage or animals lying in the road.

Always be Prepared

Throughout autumn, it’s important to be aware of the number of deer on the road. The number of collisions they cause is based on several factors: the month, local road conditions, and changes in the animal population.

"Periods of daily high-deer movement around dawn and dusk as well as seasonal behavior patterns, such as during the October-December breeding season, increase the risk for auto-deer collisions," Ron Regan, executive director for the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies, said in a statement. "Changes in collision rates from year to year are a reflection of changing deer densities or population levels – more deer in a given area increases the potential for collision. Deer populations are also affected by conditions such as new or improved roads with higher speeds near deer habitat, winter conditions, and other related factors."