Deer-vehicle collisions on the rise

Frank Radosevich II

Fred Beal was headed home from working in Peoria when his evening commute on a rural highway came to a screeching stop.

"I just came up over a hill and the deer was there. I didn’t see it until I hit it," the 40-year-old Kewanee man recalled.

The hood of his car was bent upwards and the windshield cracked from the impact with the animal. Although Beal walked away uninjured, the car had to be towed from the Oct. 15 crash near Illinois Route 78 and West Walnut Creek Road. The animal fled and its fate was unknown.

"Coming home at night, I’m much more cautious now," he said.

Transportation and wildlife officials said collisions like Beal’s are yet again on the rise statewide as development projects creep out to the once untouched countryside, encroaching on natural habitats.

"Development is playing a major role (in vehicle-deer accidents). There is a tendency for people and animals to invade each other’s place," Illinois Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Marcelyn Love said. "There’s just more interaction."

In 2006, more than 25,000 cars, trucks and motorcycles were involved in deer-related accidents, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. That marks a five percent increase over the 24,248 wrecks that occurred the year before.

The autumn mating season — usually late-October through mid-December — also raises the chance of accidents when male deer become more active, even during daylight hours.

Each year there are an estimated 1.5 million crashes nationwide, resulting in more than 150 deaths and $1.1 billion in property damage, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research group funded by insurers.

"For the people who I know that were in accidents, you’d think they ran into a wall," IDOT operations engineer Shane Larson said. "It can be pretty devastating."

Cook County led the state with 976 accidents last year while Peoria County ranked sixth with 565 crashes, which resulted in 35 injuries.

Though accidents are up, fatalities in Illinois are down sharply from the 11 in 2005 to just one in 2006.

Besides urban and suburban sprawl prompting more contact between the species, researchers say Illinois’ mushrooming deer population contributes to the problem.

Just a handful of predators, mild winters and abundant food sources from farms translates to few restraints for keeping population growth in check. Coupled with the shrinking and fragmented habitat, more deer are moving about in smaller, more populated areas.

Brian Deal, an assistant professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, studied the animal’s population at Robert Allerton Park outside of Monticello. There, he said, the number of deer living in the park’s seven-mile area quadruple over a period of one year.

"It’s causing the population to explode. Their density is just increasing and increasing," Deal said of the deer. "It becomes a safety issue."

Frank Radosevich II can be reached at (309) 686-3142 or fradosevich@pjstar.com.