Deer math:  one medium doe + Honda Odyssey + 25mph = $3,749.47

A century is but the blink of an eye on the grand scale of evolutionary adaptation.  Perhaps that is why the white-tailed deer, an animal that has developed a keen instinct for avoiding humans advancing on foot, has not yet recognized the lethal danger of the vehicles its predators drive.  With more than one hundred years of automotive history and the increasing encroachment of civilization upon wildlife, one might think that the dim creatures would have adapted to the threat and learned to flee from approaching cars.  Yet they remain frustratingly oblivious to traffic, so much so that we now refer to anyone who stupidly stares down imminent destruction without attempting escape as “a deer caught in the headlights.”

Here in Ohio, where the white-tailed deer is the official State Mammal, tales of near misses and costly collisions with the beasts are quite common.  At an estimated statewide whitetail population of 750,000, there is one deer for every fifteen of Ohio’s 11.5 million residents, so it’s no surprise that our paths cross frequently.  According to the Ohio Department of Transportation, there were 25,149 “deer-vehicle crashes” in 2009.  Just before 11:00 on a Saturday morning last December, one of those collisions was between a galloping doe and our family’s minivan.

The four of us were traveling along Route 117 on the first leg of a weekend expedition that was to take us from Columbus to Lima, where my parents would join us for the journey up I-75 to Taylor, Michigan to see our eldest daughter compete with her synchronized skating team.  We looked forward to stopping at a favorite ice cream shop in Findlay on the way up and a beloved pizza place in Bowling Green on the way back down.  My wife was driving, and as we were at the mere beginning of what would be a long day, I relaxed and closed my eyes.

I have always felt a sense of shared responsibility riding in the passenger seat.  A second pair of eyes on the road is always helpful, whether to spot the right exit or to alert the driver to potential hazards.  In the unlikely event of an accident, an alert passenger is a valuable witness.  Perhaps I might have been of some use had I kept my eyes open, but the facts of the matter are these:  I closed my eyes, and a couple minutes later, we hit a deer.

I was first aware of impending danger when I sensed a rapid decrease in our speed at the same time that I heard my wife exclaim a mild oath.  My eyes snapped open in time to see a doe in front of our van. An instant later, just prior to our forward momentum screeching to a complete stop, we all heard the sickening thud of our grill against the deer, which flopped onto the hood for a moment before collapsing onto the pavement.

We sat there, stunned by the incident and unsure what to do next.  The airbags had not deployed, there did not appear to be extensive damage, and we were all free from injury.  The deer, however, was not dead.  She flailed her limbs and scratched her hooves across the asphalt, and suddenly the situation seemed much worse.  How does one handle a mortally wounded animal that is likely to seriously injure anyone who approaches it?  Was it time to call 911?

To our amazement, the poor doe scrambled to her feet and lumbered off into the adjacent field, where she broke into a trot and disappeared into the woods.  This was a welcome development.  If the impact was light enough that the deer could get up and run away, then surely the damage must have been minimal.  My wife estimated that she had decelerated from the speed limit down to about 25 mph at the moment of collision.  She had instinctively done precisely what is advisable in such a situation, staying on course while slamming on the brakes (better to hit a deer than swerve into oncoming traffic or a roadside tree).  I cautiously opened the door and went around the front for a look.

My jaw dropped at the extent to which our van had been altered by that 25 mph thud.  The bumper was cracked in several places.  A corner of the driver-side fender was pushed in.  The hood had buckled.  Suddenly I realized that I was looking at thousands of dollars in damages. and that was only what I could see.  Was there further misfortune under the hood?

As I squatted down to check for leaking fluids, a buck walked calmly across the road just a few yards behind me.  It is strange and surreal how the human mind, preoccupied with an unexpected crisis, will process an otherwise noteworthy event as no more interesting than any everyday occurrence.  Under normal circumstances, I would have been spellbound at the sight of such a large and majestic animal coming anywhere near me.  As it was, I was still mulling over the financial impact of our accident and wondering whether our trip to Michigan had just come to an abrupt end.  The buck could just as well have been a roadside rabbit for all I cared.

Fortunately, our radiator was sound and the pavement beneath our van was dry.  Despite the dramatic interruption to our travels, there didn’t seem to be any reason why we couldn’t continue on our way.  I took a few pictures of the accident scene as insurance documents, and then we resumed our journey.

Once you’ve hit a deer, you become hypersensitive to the potential for such collisions.  My wife explained that the doe we hit had been running at an angle toward our van, galloping in the same direction as if to overtake us for a moment before running off into the opposite field.  Our daughters noted that they had seen a small herd in a clearing not long before the crash.  And it was hunting season.  We drove toward Lima with paranoid eyes darting to and fro, half-expecting a hunter’s quarry to be flushed from the woods and into our path as we rounded a curve.  Of course, the rest of our trip proceeded without incident.

We filed an insurance claim and found a reputable body shop to repair the damage.  $3,749.47 later, our van was looking better than it did before the accident, its new bumper and hood free of the cosmetic toll that roadway grit and gravel had exacted over the years. 

The Ohio Insurance Institute estimates that $75.8 million in auto damages was caused by statewide deer collisions in 2009, a staggering figure that makes our claim seem insignificant.  Still, it all adds up.  And until enough generations of deer come and go for natural selection to favor that rare animal that looks before it leaps, we’ll all be paying for it.