Driver caution urged as deer-hit season nears

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Part of Terry Woodhull's job is fixing cars involved in deer strikes. Two weeks ago, he became his own customer.

A manager at Starlite Auto Body Inc. in Mattituck, Woodhull, 60, was on his way to work at about 5 a.m. when a deer appeared on the road in front of him.

"It was so quick," he said, likening it to a shooting gallery game. "All of a sudden, there it was in front of me."

Woodhull said he wasn't hurt, and the deer took off. His Dodge Dakota pickup was damaged -- to the tune of $4,500 -- the longtime Cutchogue resident's first such deer-involved accident, though he reports some near-misses.

It's just one example of what he and other auto body professionals anticipate at this time of year, with November, followed by October and December, the top months for deer-vehicle collisions nationally, according to auto insurer State Farm.

Thanks to migration and mating season, which can result in pursuits across roadways, claims data show more than 18 percent of such collisions occur in November, says State Farm.

The problem is especially troublesome in eastern Suffolk where there are high-speed roads leading to both forks, suburban developments and "enough woodland to attract deer," said Paul Curtis, associate professor and wildlife specialist at Cornell University. Also, deer density in locations such as Shelter Island and North Haven is among the highest in the state, he said.

The top months for motor vehicle accidents involving deer investigated and reported by the Suffolk County sheriff last year were November, 17; October, 8; and May and December, 5 each. Sheriff deputies patrol Sunrise Highway from Exit 37, Route 109, to Exit 62, Route 111, and the Long Island Expressway, from Exit 48, Round Swamp Road, to Exit 71, Calverton. Comparable data for Nassau are not available, but a police spokesman said deer hits there are rare.

Since 2008, November and October have been the top two months for deer-hit cleanup on Long Island's state roads, according to New York Department of Transportation figures. Last year there were 131 cleanups in November and 71 in October. The majority of such strikes are in eastern Suffolk, said Eileen Peters, DOT spokeswoman on Long Island.

Most accidents involving deer are front-end collisions, said Ed Kizenberger, executive director of the Long Island Auto Body Repairmen's Association. Depending on speed and auto make, such damage can run in the $2,500 to $6,500 range, he said.

According to the New York Department of Motor Vehicles, "animal's action" was a contributing factor in 8.7 percent of accidents statewide in 2010, resulting in 14 fatalities and more than $20,000 in property damage.

Joe Milazzo, 26, manager of Village Auto Body, in Hampton Bays, said they've recently done three repair jobs in the $3,000 to $5,000 range brought about by deer collisions. While it's a year-round issue, the uptick starts in early October and generally lasts until the first frost, he said.

Woodhull estimates an average two to three deer-hit vehicles come in a week for repair at this time of year, but recalls starting one week two years ago with eight.

Drivers are advised to be more alert at this time of year for the possibility of a deer encounter, especially at early morning and dusk, Curtis said.

Here are things for motorists to watch for:

-- At this time of year especially, be more aware of deer-crossing signs and spots where you've seen deer in the past, Curtis said, as deer are creatures of habit.

-- Turn on the high beams to light up the sides of the roadway where deer might appear, State Farm said.

-- With that in mind, being alert for the "silver-dollar-size reflection" in deers' eyes staring at headlights might give an extra two to three seconds of warning, Curtis said.

-- Think twice about swerving to avoid hitting a deer, which could lead you to leave the roadway or cross into oncoming traffic, said Curtis.

-- Don't rely on car-mounted deer alert whistles, State Farm said. Indeed, Milazzo said he has a collection of 12 such devices taken from vehicles repaired after deer run-ins.

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