#309 – Caution Deer Ahead

North America’s deer population continues to gather numbers, which poses a growing challenge for riders.

Caution: Deer Ahead

I’m riding from Vancouver to Spokane, Washington where I’ll collect a group of American riders for a guided tour of southern BC. The choice route for this trip includes Washington 20, the North Cascades Highway—a road rated the best in the state by Destination Highways Washington. And I wouldn’t argue. But they didn’t warn me about the turkey.
It’s between the towns of Winthrop and Twisp that I spot something in the road about five seconds ahead—a full-grown tom turkey emerges from the brush and starts across the road. I’m going too fast to stop, but my minimal knowledge of nautical lore says you aim for the stern when another ship crosses your path. I decide to pass behind the turkey—but Tom glimpses my approach and decides to scuttle back. We’re on a collision course.
I feel something hit my boot as I pass Tom, but when I glance in my mirror, the road is clear. I’m thinking a near miss until I pull into a gas station in Brewster. My ABS front fender is destroyed, and the Sprint’s main fairing panel has a fist-size hole in it, with a tear some 30cm long. The tear is stuffed with a gooey mixture of feathers, blood and mucus. I rather think Tom fared worse.
Finding a turkey in the road is rare, of course. Not so every biker’s worst nightmare: deer.
Last issue, I mentioned a ride over Soldier Summit and the truck tire debris scattered on the highway. But even more impressive—if that’s the right word—was the number of deer carcasses at the side of Highway Six. By the time I reached the summit, I’d counted 13, all nailed by some vehicle or other. There are more than 30 million deer in North America, and the numbers are growing: “God damn 500-lb. rats,” as one of my acquaintances calls them.
We all have our deer near-miss stories, and most of us know a rider who’s hit one. It’s rarely a good outcome. But some get lucky—sort of. My buddy Steve was riding at night on I-90 in Idaho when a pickup passed him. Steve heard the bang as the truck slammed into a full-grown whitetail—and felt the shower of body bits and fluids as the ruminant’s abdomen exploded.
I’ve made it a personal rule (though as we know, they’re made to be broken) not to ride at night. But sometimes you have to. In September 2003 I was leading a group of riders south to California from Whistler, BC. A fuel miscalculation (by the company owner, not me) meant we had to ride through the Gifford-Pinchot National Forest near Mount St. Helens, Washington late into the evening, with the last few kilometres in pitch darkness. All I can remember seeing was the rear end of a whitetail as it hopped into my headlight beam less than 10 feet ahead, then bounded away. I didn’t even have time for the adrenalin to flow before the threat was past. But neither did I sleep much that night.
Well-known American motojournalist Larry Grodsky was less lucky. He broke his own rule about not riding at night after failing to find a motel bed in a Texas town on his way home from California in April 2006. Pressing on to the next hamlet, he hit a deer and succumbed to his injuries. And Suzie Greenaway, the International Norton Owners Association President nearly lost a leg after hitting a deer in Wisconsin.
What to do about deer? Well, if you’re a motorcyclist and one has your number, probably not much. Dawn and dusk are said to be the most dangerous times, as deer move between feeding and sleeping areas. Deer whistles? I invested $8.95 in a pair on the basis that if they worked, I was good; and if they didn’t, I was only out $8.95. Sadly, most objective studies show they don’t.
Many major highways in the Canadian west, like 97C, the Okanagan Connector, and the Trans-Canada in Banff National Park, are lined with deer fences. In Kootenay National Park, where the whitetail road kill count was over 320 between 2003-2012, Parks Canada has constructed fencing along a particularly dangerous five-kilometre stretch of Highway 93 and built deer crossing tunnels.
Motorcyclists, of course, prefer the twisty mountain roads. No deer fences there; and deer warning signs are so common, they don’t help much either. The less traffic on the road, the more likely you’ll round a bend and find deer standing in the road.
Is there a riding strategy that can help? It’s generally understood that deer are nervous, skittish animals, and do two things when they hear or see your bike approaching: first they freeze to assess the threat; then, as their predators typically are faster in a straight line, they bound erratically from side to side as an evasion tactic. That could land one right in your path—if you didn’t hit it while it was still standing catatonic in the road.
Something that can help: if you see one deer, don’t assume it’s alone. It’s more than likely a fawn (or its mom) is nearby. And scan your route at least 12 to 14 seconds ahead, especially if you’re near water, or if the road is lined with trees or brush. If you can’t see that far, slow right down until you can. And while following a car too closely is always dangerous, riding at night can be safer if you find a ‘hare’ and track behind it at a safe distance. Even now, headlights on a car are usually more powerful than on a motorcycle, and they typically have a broader beam.
And I’d far rather it was the car in front that hit the deer, not me!

Keeping Canadian riders informed and entertained since 1980.