Upwards of 40,000 deer are reported killed each year on the highways of the five states nearest Washington, and wildlife managers believe the true total is twice that high.

The slaughter is sad, and so is the waste. A typical whitetail deer will yield about 50 pounds of meat, so some 3.5 million pounds of venison is scattered along the roadways of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia each year.

But the news is not all bad. Road kills represent no danger to the deer population, which is larger than it ever has been before and in many areas larger than is good for the herds and their habitats. And, no doubt partly because of the runaway cost of food, passersby are taking increasing numbers of even badly battered deer home to eat.

The five states have varying laws on the disposition of road kills. In Virginia (about 4,000 reported last year) and Maryland (more than 1,000), the rule is that the driver involved may keep the deer, after reporting the accident and getting a game tag from a warden or other law-enforcement officer.

This is only fair, because while deer are small -- they seldom stand more than three feet high at the shoulder and generally weigh less than 150 pounds -- they often do an amazing amount of damage to an automobile or light truck. Frequently the vehicle must be towed, and sometimes the occupants are serious injured or even killed.

If the motorist does not want the animal, an officer has discretion to give it away or take it home himself. "If you want venison, cultivate a cop," is the way a Maryland State Police executive put it.

In both states "finders keepers" is the law for a hit-and-run deer, but the carcass still must be checked in; road-kill reports are a valuable source of game-management data, and possession of an untagged deer carries the same penalties as poaching.

That doesn't stop a Virginian who lives in New Market and commutes to Warrenton: "I travel U.S. 211 through the Blue Ridge at dawn and dusk five days a week, and when I see a dead deer it goes in the trunk. If there are people standing around I mumble something about being with the state, which usually works. I've raised three kids and fed two wives on road kills."

Pennsylvania's official road-kill total has been approaching 30,000 in recent years, and the Keystone State has developed a rational and effective plan for salvaging many of those tons of venison. "Game-protection agents pick up the animals and butcher them," game-management chief Dale Sheffer said. "The meat is packaged and given to poor people, whether they are on welfare or simply known to be needy.

"The system means a lot of work for our people, but the venison is very much appreciated; there is more demand than supply. We figure that for every deer we pick up somebody beats us to another one, but we don't get too excited about that. The point is for the animals not to be wasted. The meat is fine, lean, high-quality protein."

Bob Miller of Maryland's deer management office at Wye Mills said the demand for road kills keeps pace with rising meat prices. "People call state offices asking for them. You can almost track it on a chart."

Delaware has at most a few hundred deer killed on its highways each year. The law is that if the driver doesn't want it, the animal must be donated to a public or charitable institution. "It isn't a problem," a state official said. "Usually the driver takes it for himself or a friend or neighbor. Or he will sign the tag and give the deer to somebody else on the scene, perhaps the officer. We find takers on the spot for almost all deer that are in any sort of decent condition."

Many of West Virginia's 2,500 reported road kills are wasted by law. Under the long-established legal principle that wild animals belong to the state no matter who owns the land they live on, West Virginia seizes all road kills. Other Eastern states used to do the same, and distribute them to state institutions. That worked fine until the advent of modern meat-inspection laws; now jails and hospitals can't take them and neither can the authorities give them away.

"I am happy to say that the letter of the law is often violated," a state game manager said. "Quite a few of the kills go to feed the animals at the French Creek Game Farm, which is really nothing but a zoo, but often the officers give the deer to the parties involved or to people who come along. They aren't supposed to do it, but more often than not the only alternative is to take the carcass to a dump, and anything is better than that even though we do lose the record of the kill. There also are some charitable organizations that accept them."

"I doubt if we hear about one road kill in three," a police dispatcher at Morgantown said. "Now and then we get called to a disturbance along the road and find two or three guys fighting over who gets the deer. And when a road kill is reported, a trooper has to hustle like hell to get there before somebody snatches it. A man will come along while the people are waiting for the police and say he's a warden and off he goes with it. We've had cases where guys have come along and snuck off with a deer while the trooper is filling out the report."

An Arlington man who does a lot of deer hunting "but damn little deer finding" has picked up two road-killed animals in the past month. "I drive rural highways at night a lot," he said. "It finally occurred to me that I see more dead deer along the road than legal ones over my rifle barrel. The night before the Virginia season opened this year I saw one beside Route 7 near Goose Creek and decided to stop and pick it up."

The animal, a 125-pound doe, had been run over at least twice and dragged some distance. "She was really torn up. She looked awful and smelled worse," he said. "But I spread a sheet of plastic and hauled her into the van and took her to the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office. The deputy just said, 'Oh, another one from Goose Creek,' and wrote me out a tag."

Butchering the doe in his driveway caused some sensation in the suburban neighborhood, and he had only 10 pounds of venison to show for the effort. "I was pretty picky, it being the first time out. But I took the meat with me to deer camp and we ate kebabs and stew until we were stuffed. It may have helped prime the pump, because two of the five hunters got deer on opening day, and we never did that well before."

A road-kill scavenger must not be squeamish, he said. "They usually smell pretty bad because their inside have been messed up, but the difference between that and the carrion smell of rotten meat is very clear. In cool or cold weather they can lie there a day or two without spoiling. After they're cleaned and skinned you have to rinse them well and trim away the bloodshot meat, but it's no big deal."

The second deer was a six-point buck he found alongside the fence surrounding NASA's Wallops Island base on the Virginia Eastern Shore. "About 500 cars had passed it," he said. "I picked it up. He looked to be in a lot better condition but actually was torn up worse; all I saved was the backstraps [filets], but that's a little like saying you were looking for diamonds in your back yard and only found two.

"I gave one to friends who never had eaten venison, and they said they'd never had finer meat. The other I served to some people who get venison all the time and hate it, because the hunters who give it to them don't age the meat before they freeze it and it tastes weird. Everybody loved it."

He said he'll never pass up another road-killed deer: "It's manna from heaven."