Deer Reflectors, Saving Deer and Driver
With averted eyes, drivers rush past a lifeless deer on the road’s edge. The scene is a common one. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a driver hits a deer an estimated 1.5 million times each year in the U.S., up from 200,000 just 25 years ago. These accidents kill hundreds of thousands of deer, over a hundred motorists, and cost insurance companies more than a billion dollars a year. Aside from reducing our use of the roads and exercising greater caution when we must drive, deer reflectors, fencing, seasonal signage and other deer deterrents may be the most effective ethical means to prevent these accidents. Greenways and wildlife corridors can keep animals out of the roadway altogether, by providing safe passage from one park or natural area to another in our increasingly isolated wild areas.
Many hunters take a different view: They see roadway deaths of deer as an opportunity to advocate hunting in the name of road safety. A 2002 study by Friends of Animals found that hunting actually exacerbates roadway deaths of deer because it can frighten deer into darting out to roadways. About half of all these collisions occur in just three months: October, November, and December — hunting season. During the autumn, the average number of deer hit by cars jumps from 550 per month to over 1,700 per month. The Erie Insurance Company in Pennsylvania found that the number of deer hit in 1997 increased five-fold on the first day of hunting season.
Nevertheless, state environmental and wildlife management agencies encourage hunting in more communities every year, using the spec of cars mangled by runaway deer to scare local communities into enacting hunting regulations in new areas and expanding hunting in areas that already allow it. This too is an opportunity for gain. Government wildlife agencies collect money when they license hunters. Add matching funds from the federal government, and hunters effectively become the clients of these agencies.
Pausing to reflect
Some ethically sound investments are available. The first commercial deer reflectors, dubbed Swareflex, debuted in the U.S and Canada in 1978. Since 1993, they have been made under the name Strieter-Lite, and can be found in 17 states and British Columbia and Ontario, Canada.
“Strieter-Lites keep all kinds of animals off the road, including deer,” says John Strieter, president of the Strieter Corporation. “In Florida they have shown to keep the key deer and Florida panther out of roadways; and they keep elk in Colorado, cougars in Oregon, and wild horses in Nevada from being hit.” Though reflectors are usually used to keep whitetail deer out of roads, foxes, coyotes, opossums, and raccoons are all discouraged by the reflectors.
Reflectors are set up along the side of the road at 50-foot intervals, and use a passing car’s headlights to reflect light in a perpendicular stream from the oncoming vehicle, causing deer or other animals to freeze before entering the roadway. The unnatural light patterns cause animals to move away from these areas without crossing the road.
Strieter claims that accidents are reduced by an average of 80% when the reflectors are used properly, a number that is supported by an independent researcher who analyzed Strieter’s data. In the field, however, the reflectors have a varied record of success. Some states (Iowa, Minnesota, Oregon, and Wisconsin) that have used reflectors have reported significant reductions in the number of deer hit, while others (California, Maine and Wyoming) have noticed no difference in studies where the reflectors were covered, and then uncovered, and number of deer deaths compared. Even within some states, such as Colorado and Washington, the effectiveness seems to vary. 
According to a report by the Iowa Department of Transportation, the low effectiveness of deer reflectors at test sites there may have been linked to large increases in vehicle miles driven and deer populations over the last 15 years, negating modest decreases from reflector use, so deer fences with crossing structures were implemented instead.
Maintenance of the reflectors has a real impact on how they work as well. Steve Chicka, a county engineer in Fond du Lac County, Wis., explains, “The effectiveness of the reflectors became quite obvious when we discovered that all of the [new] kills had occurred in places where we had ‘gaps’ or ‘holes’ in our reflector coverage.”  Although the federal government hasn’t conducted large-scale surveys, deer reflectors are approved to receive federal funding under the Hazard Elimination Program of the Federal Highway Administration, which means it is up to local road managers to decide if the choice is right for their area.
Herschel Stacy, sign shop supervisor for the Calhoun County Road Commission in Marshall, Mich., says their test area has shown good results. “We’ve had about a 90% decrease in our car-deer accidents, and recently I looked for a new area of the road where we have had a large number of deer hits and put them in. Last autumn, before installing the reflectors, we had 24 car-deer accidents there, and so far this year there haven’t been any.”
Critiques of Strieter-Lites, including cost-related issues, have prevented them from more widespread use. According to Pat Wallace, the assistant resident engineer for Lewis County in upstate New York, “They’re very expensive to put in, and we’ve just had so many budget cuts in the last few years we can barely afford to fill in the potholes.” Strieter answers, “They are the cheapest safety devices available to prevent car-deer accidents. At a cost of $7,000-$10,000 per mile, and the average accident costing $2,500, only 3 accidents need to be avoided for the reflectors to pay for themselves. The only other alternative to keeping deer out of roads is fencing, which restricts movement within habitat and costs about $150,000 per mile.” Though local areas do pay for the cleanup costs of deer when they are hit, they don’t pay the majority of costs; insurance companies do, so a stronger argument for reflectors can be made based on injuries and deaths rather than vehicle damage.
Differences in terrain, especially in the types of trees that might diminish the reflectors’ effectiveness (reflector strength in a densely forested area varies from that in open ponderosa pine for example) could also lead to differing results from one region to another, according to a 1992 report by Mary Ossinger of the Washington State Department of Transportation.
Other limitations of the Strieter-Lite system include the reflectors’ ineffectiveness in daylight, and vulnerability to defacement by vandals or weather. About 80% of animal road crossings occur at dawn and dusk, however; so reflectors are still useful for the majority of animal crossings, according to Strieter-Lite’s promotional material.
Pat Wallace criticizes the reflectors because of the time needed to maintain them. “We get in excess of 250 inches of snow a year and it’s very high-maintenance to keep the reflectors cleaned off after a snowstorm.” Mike Day, highway maintenance supervisor for the Colorado Department of Transportation, argues that “most animals are hibernating during and right after the big storms, and by the time they come out, the snow has melted off or been cleared away from the reflectors. We’ve had a 60-70% reduction in car-deer accidents since testing them out.”
It seems that some areas find deer reflectors a cost-effective investment, while others lag and continue to conduct localized studies before making a large purchase. Minnesota has outfitted 14 highway regions with reflectors and British Columbia has covered 13 (comprising about 20 km of road where high numbers of accidents occur). According to Strieter, Indiana, New Jersey and New York have invested in the reflectors in the last two to three years. In the states of Washington and Florida, all new road construction must include deer reflectors. Because new construction typically travels through areas free-living animals call home, this requirement is one that should adhere to all road construction zones.
Changing behavior, saving animals
Deer reflectors aren’t the only way to keep deer out of roads, and combining methods or offering alternative methods might be the best way to reduce the dangers to deer on posed by North American drivers. Working with officials in Idaho, Nevada and Utah, researchers at Utah State University implemented signs that would only be used seasonally (as opposed to permanent deer crossing signs, typically ignored by drivers). These signs got attention because of their reflective flags and flashing lights, and were supplemented with smaller signs every mile to remind drivers to keep their speeds down. The number of deer killed in these zones was reduced by half.
Deer are drawn to “edge habitat”, those spaces between open areas and woods, including roadsides, which often feature the kind of low brush and saplings deer eat. By clearing broad areas next to the road, and reducing foliage that might attract them, not only will deer (and perhaps other nonhuman animals as well) be less apt to spend time near roads, but when they do venture out, drivers will be much more likely to see them and slow down in time to avert an accident.
Repellents can discourage deer from roadsides, but fencing — an expensive option — is the “only broadly accepted method of reducing deer collisions that’s theoretically sound and proven effective, combined with underpasses and overpasses where appropriate,” according to the Insurance Institute’s Status report from January of 2004.
Wildlife corridors and greenways may be among the best long-term solutions to the problem of animal deaths on roads. While these green spaces connecting larger natural areas have been very popular and effective in Europe for decades, the U.S. has been catching on to the benefits they can provide only for the last few years. These areas can provide safe passage for animals under or over roads, and return some of the land humans have taken over, allowing many kinds of animals to move more freely.
Greenways and wildlife corridors can be highly effective in reducing animal deaths by car and can be added even in urban areas, as has been shown in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. A comprehensive 2002 University of Florida study determined that “[t]hese corridors do help in connecting populations, and theoretically they should help sustain networks of populations existing in increasingly fragmented landscapes,” said Josh Tewksbury, lead author. Of course greenway projects are not short-term fixes and must be planned into new construction, but it should come as no great surprise that returning land to a more natural state would be of the greatest benefit to free-living animals, and ourselves as well.
Keeping humans and free-living animals alive and safe is a community responsibility. Deer reflectors, fencing, seasonal warning signage, and the establishment of open areas on roadsides are inexpensive and ethically sound ways to keep deer and other animals from being killed. Encourage your local Department of Transportation to use reflectors on newly constructed roads, and in areas where deer-car collisions are common. Greenways and wildlife corridors are another great alternative, which has benefits for both people and animals. East Coast Greenway can be contacted at www.greenway.org or call 401.789.4625. Contact the Strieter-Lite Company at 2100 18th Ave., Rock Island, Illinois 61201. See www.strieter-lite.com or call 309.794.9800 and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Highway Loss Data Institute, 1005 N. Glebe Road Arlington, VA 22201 or call 703.247.1500.
- Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Status Report. “Lots of approaches are under way to reduce deer collisions, but few have proven effective”. Vol. 39, No. 1 Jan. 3, 2004.
- Friends of Animals Report. “Deer/Auto Collsions.” June, 2002.
- Erie Insurance Group. “Car-Deer Collisions Carry High Price Tag.” www.erieinsurance.com/abouterie/newsreleases/news46.html. October 21, 1998.
- Road Management and Management Journal, Transafety, Inc. May 12, 1997.
- Gent, Steve. “Deer-Vehicle Issues in Iowa.” Iowa Department of Transportation, 2000.
- Road Management and Management Journal, Transafety, Inc. May 12, 1997
- Personal Communication, January, 2004
- Road Management and Management Journal, Transafety, Inc. May 12, 1997
- Personal Communication, January, 2004
- Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, as above.
- Hoover, Aaron. “After Massive Experiment, Results Favor Wildlife Corridors.” University of Florida. http://www.napa.ufl.edu/2002news/corridors.html Sept. 2002.