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When Deer Meets Driver
Fall Brings Out Ill-Fated Matchups

By Paul Duggan and Dan Keating
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 26, 2006

There's a new map of Maryland that looks like a bad case of the measles, with 5,769 red dots splotched across the landscape.

Each one marks a spot where crews scraped a deer carcass off the highway last year.

Virginia doesn't have a red-dot plotter yet, but more than 1,000 deer collide with cars each year in Fairfax County, and more than 600 are hit on Loudoun County roadways alone.

November is peak mating time for the region's overabundant deer. Bucks chasing does in heat and does playing hard to get don't look both ways before crossing the street. Which is a big reason so many of them end up as roadside carcasses in the fall.

As deer continue to thrive in Washington's suburbs, bedding down in small woods near subdivisions, feeding on shrubs and gardens, thousands of them turn up dead each year along thoroughfares, killed by vehicles. Most collisions occur during the rutting season, late October to early December. Experts hope to identify "hot spots" where they can try to ease the problem.

A familiar story this time of year -- man and nature colliding in suburban traffic.

The deer came bolting out of the darkness "like an apparition," Michelle Marcotte said.

"It was a big one, too, with antlers and everything."

She and her husband, Kenneth Vick, were in their Chrysler PT Cruiser on Nov. 12, headed home from an evening church service in Prince George's County. Vick, 64, was at the wheel when the buck slammed into his door.

"It's pitch-black out; it's raining," said Marcotte, 52. They were in the county's Glendale area, driving about 35 mph. For an instant, the deer "was right up against the window -- eye to eye with my husband." Then came "a giant, crashing, rumbling, awful sound," Marcotte said. "I was very frazzled. I mean, you hit something that large, you could get killed."

For motorists, the crashes can be expensive and dangerous -- even deadly.

"The driver's-side door is smashed and can't be opened," Marcotte said. "The fender has a big dent in it, with paint scratched off. The headlight is hanging out. And then the antlers smashed the hood. . . . I mean, that's an awful lot of damage for one deer."

As for the buck, "it ran off, I guess. We didn't see it."

The damage: $3,370.

No one can say for sure how many deer-vehicle crashes occur each year. The deer often limp away, and police are rarely called.

There are at least as many deer in the Washington area now as in Colonial times, maybe more, experts think. Some rural counties have allowed increased hunting to cull the deer population. Officials in more populated areas sometimes use police or civilian sharpshooters to thin the herds.

Centuries ago, deer in the region had an array of predators to worry about, including "timber wolves, mountain lions and other animals that have basically been eradicated in the East," said James Parkhurst, a wildlife specialist at Virginia Tech. Hunters used to roam the forests year-round. These days, though, a lot of deer enjoy a cushy suburban lifestyle.

"You really can't find a habitat that is much better at providing the essential needs they're looking for," Parkhurst said. There's plenty to munch on: lawns and bushes, flowers and vegetables. And deer are not likely to be shot at in, say, Chevy Chase.

"We've basically given them a predator-free environment filled with resources," Parkhurst said.

But they simply refuse to obey pedestrian rules.

Especially in November.

"All eyes and all attention of the buck are devoted to the doe," Parkhurst said. "In the peak of the rut, the hormones are really dictating behavior. And so once they get fixated on following that doe, they really put blinders on."

As for females, they sometimes play hard to get, because it ensures they're not going to get jumped by a less dominant buck. "They want the most dominant, most genetically fit individual, to assure they'll have a successful breeding," he said. So if a doe doesn't like what she sees, there's a good chance she will run.

It's hard to run far in the suburbs without crossing a road. To make matters worse, deer are most active early mornings and early evenings. Their rush hours coincide with motorists', resulting in increased business for auto-body shops.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that 1.5 million deer-vehicle collisions occurred in the country last year, causing $1.1 billion in damage, an average of about $735 per crash. State Farm Insurance Co. said it handled 192,877 such claims in the year ending June 30. The average cost per crash: $2,800. On the company's list of states with the most claims, Virginia ranked sixth.

"I've seen them a lot more than $2,800," said Ron Reece, manager of R.S. Collision Center in Manassas. "I've seen vehicles totaled." At Finn Auto Body in Woodbridge, manager Andrea Mason said: "The worst job we had was a few years back, where it almost killed the lady. The deer went right through the windshield and was kicking right into her chest."

Nationwide, at least 180 motorists died last year (and 204 in 2004) in collisions with animals, mostly deer, up from 101 in 1993, according to a U.S. Transportation Department study. On Oct. 10 in Carroll County, Md., a motorist hit a deer, propelling it into the air. It landed on a van, which went out of control and crashed, killing the 37-year-old man who was driving.

A regional task force has been studying what to do about collisions. The group has discussed wildlife road underpasses with fencing to guide animals through and motion sensors with lights that would flash to warn drivers when the animals get too close to thoroughfares.

In Fairfax, to warn drivers about deer bolting across roads, police have been using large, mobile signs, hoping they will get more attention than smaller, permanent deer-crossing signs, which motorists tend to ignore.

In the Harwood area of Anne Arundel County, George Donaldson left home for work the morning of Nov. 15 in his 1977 Ford F-150 pickup. As always, he watched for the deer living in the woods around his house.

"I see two up in front of me," said Donaldson, 48. He slowed to let them pass. "So I go on up, and I get about a mile from my house, and all of a sudden one shoots out of the woods. I don't even see him. And bam! It hits me."

Donaldson loves that vintage truck, with just 60,000 miles on it. He bought it in mint condition a year ago for $10,000.

The deer ran off, maybe dying, maybe just sore. Donaldson drove to work -- to Glenn Dale Auto Body, which he owns with a partner -- and checked the damage.

"It needs a bumper," he said. "An outer grill shell. An inner grill shell. Headlights. Parking lights. Left front fender needs to be fixed. Moldings need to be replaced. It's roughly a $2,000 job. And we already have two others here."

Including the PT Cruiser.

"I've been driving since I was 16," Donaldson said. "I've never hit a deer before. Because I'm always watching. But there it came."

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