Cougars may help curb deer-related auto crashes, research suggests

New research suggests that an increase in the cougar population can help lower car accidents where deer are involved.

The cold weather is galloping closer by the day, a sure sign that it won't be long before the roads are lined with ice and snow, making for tricky travel. However, Old Man Winter isn't the only risk that's gaining on us with alacrity – deer are as well, considering the fact that it's mating season. In fact, deer populations have risen substantially in recent years, and cougars may be the reason why, a newly released report suggests.

Cougars, which are natural predators of deer, have been in a state of decline for several years now, according to wildlife experts. As a result, deer counts have risen. While this no doubt comes as good news to nature lovers, it's bad news for motorists. Roughly 1.2 million car accidents annually stem from deer strikes, according to various estimates including those done by researchers from the University of Washington. Additionally, 200 people are killed in these incidents and 29,000 are injured, many seriously.

More cougars, fewer deer strikes

One way in which this troublesome trend can reverse itself is with an influx in the cougar population. The study's principal investigators postulate that over the next 30 years, assuming cougars increase their numbers, vehicle collisions nationally could be slashed by 22%, resulting in five fewer deadly accidents per year, 680 fewer injuries and $50 million saved in medical bills and auto insurance claims.

Laura Prugh, the study's lead author and assistant professor of quantitative wildlife sciences at UW's School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, indicated that cougars may get a bad wrap, but they can literally play a life and death role for the country's roadways.

"The important take-home is that there can be very tangible benefits to having large carnivores around," Prugh explained. "Carnivores are so controversial and there's a lot of fear, anxiety and resistance when they are reintroduced or recolonize an area. We are hoping that showing people how their lives could really benefit in a tangible way from having large carnivores around could help people become more accepting of living with them."

Deer strikes most common in the East

She added that just about everyone in the East either knows someone who has been involved in a deer-related accident or has experienced one themselves. If deer populations aren't controlled, it increases the risk that more of these incidents will occur.

Several states have seen more deer strikes than others. Routinely among the top 10 are West Virginia, Texas, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Montana, according to Tragically, deadly crashes of this type have risen, totaling 180 in 2013, up from 122 in 1994.

Motorists have another incentive to purchase automobiles with crash avoidance technology, as the experts at the Highway Loss Data Institute believe that this technology can help reduce deer-related collisions.

"The majority of animal-strike claims are for front-end damage," said Matt Moore, HLDI Vice President. "If vehicle manufacturers could use front crash prevention systems to detect animals, many of these crashes could be prevented."

Between 2004 and 2013, the average cost of repairs was $2,730 among policyholders with comprehensive auto insurance, HLDI found. Nearly 90% of deer strikes affect the front end of the car. 

Defensive driving is always encouraged, but it's especially important in October, November, and December, the most common months when deer strikes happen. The following recommendations from the Insurance Information Institute can help you stay safe during breeding season.

Exhibit extreme caution when the sun rises and sets

Deer can appear at any time, but they're most likely to dart across the road in the early morning hours before the sun rises and then later in the evening when it sets. Be as attentive as possible during these periods.

Look for deer crossing signs

Yellow signs depicting deer usually mark areas where populations may be elevated or strikes have occurred before. Keep an eye out for them and decrease your speed accordingly.

Lay on the horn

Deer are easily frightened by sudden movements and loud noises, so be sure to press your horn hard if you approach an area of the road where deer are present.

DO NOT swerve

The natural inclination is to turn the steering wheel when deer suddenly appear. Doing this risks the car overturning or veering into oncoming traffic in the adjacent lane. Engage the brakes as firmly as possible and brace for impact.

For more tips, visit the III's website.