FROSTBURG, MD. -- Apparently spooked by light at the end of the tunnels, deer have been shy about using four passageways recently installed for them under a new Maryland interstate road.

Maryland's State Highway Administration used corrugated steel to build four culverts under completed sections of I-97 between Baltimore and Annapolis in hopes of encouraging animals to cross under instead of over the road.

Researchers at the University of Maryland's Appalachian Environmental Laboratory in Frostburg are trying to find out if animals are using the underpasses. Mink, mice, muskrat and raccoon have used them, but so far no deer have ventured through the dimly lighted tunnels.

"To us, the opening {at the other end} looks fairly large," said William R. Gates, a graduate assistant working on the project. "But for deer, it's like going into a cave or tunnel and they aren't used to going into enclosures."

The state and federal highway administrations are financing the $210,000, five-year study in hopes of finding a way to reduce the number of animals killed on American highways. Several other states have tried culverts, but little has been done to document their use.

The study also aims to learn more about what happens to a wildlife area when it is cut across by a highway. I-97 cuts through woods near Crownsville State Hospital.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, an estimated 200,000 deer die each year on U.S. roads and highways. However, Doug Smith, an FHA ecologist, said the number was a conservative estimate.

If the culverts prove successful, they would be a cheaper alternative to building bridges, which cost four or five times as much to build and maintain, said William L. Branch, environmental specialist with Maryland's highway administration.

Researchers are watching tracks and using a wildlife surveillance system to monitor animal activity in the culverts. Movement at the tunnel openings trip sensors on video cameras, which film the activity during the day and night.

"So far we had a deer enter the culvert and then come back out," Gates said, adding that the cameras have not been without problems. "Sometimes we have to look at a half hour of blowing grass."

Recent flooding inside the tunnels might have discouraged some animals from using them, but Gates said he suspected the culverts might not be large enough.

Three of the culverts are 15 feet high, 21 feet wide and about as long as a football field. Maybe the deer assume they cannot get through what they perceive is a tiny opening at the other end, Gates said. The fourth culvert is 500 feet long.

"The only evidence I have is that we have had several deer approach the culverts, but they have not gone in," he said.

Branch agreed but said fences were being installed along the interstate to guide deer and other animals to the culverts.

"To really draw conclusions, you have to eliminate all other access to the other side of the road," he said.