Which animal poses the biggest threat to humans? Bears, maybe? Or sharks?

Nope -- in North America, at least, the answer is: Bambi.

According to a widely cited statistic from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, vehicle crashes involving deer cause around 200 deaths in the U.S. every year. Analysis from auto insurance giant State Farm estimates that deer were involved in 1.2 million collisions from July 2012 through June of this year. While the number was down 3.5% from the same period a year earlier, the resulting property damage increased 3.3%, to an average of about $3,400 per collision, State Farm says.

Ohio Insurance Institute spokesman Mitch Wilson says deer-vehicle collisions spike from October to January, the height of deer mating and migration season. "They're most active at dusk and dawn, from 5 p.m. to midnight, and 5 a.m. to 8 a.m.," he says. "Of course, those are times when cars are normally on the road, too."

As many an unlucky motorist will attest, you don't necessarily have to run into a deer to be involved in a crash with one. "A lot of times, you may not hit the deer; the deer may hit you or leap onto your car. That happens in many, many cases," Wilson says.

Crashes buck normal insurance logic

Startled drivers who have run-ins with deer, elk, moose and other hoofed mammals are often equally surprised by how their auto insurance treats their claims.

Logic might suggest that such crashes would fall under the collision portion of your policy, which pays for damage to your vehicle if you hit (or are hit) by another vehicle or object. But instead, animal-related damage is typically treated as an "other than collision" claim under your comprehensive coverage, or "comp," which covers so-called acts of God such as wind, hail and flood, as well as fire, vandalism and theft.

Each year, State Farm's underwriters calculate your relative likelihood of hitting a deer, based on the insurer's claims reports. According to State Farm's latest analysis, an American motorist currently has a 1 in 174 chance of hitting a deer during the next 12-month period. The risk could be a compelling reason to carry comp as well as collision coverage, says spokesman Dick Luedke.

"Most people, though not very many State Farm customers, have one of those and not the other," he says. "Either you have them both or you have neither. When you have an older car, sometimes you don't purchase the physical-damage coverages, but more people with newer cars definitely have both."

Then there's the issue of deductibles. Drivers often raise their deductibles on collision and/or comp to save on premiums, but a deer collision can throw a set of antlers into that cost-cutting strategy. You'll ask yourself, "Did I raise my collision deductible to $1,000, or was it my comp deductible?" That's something you'll want to know if you hit a deer.

Having to satisfy a large comp deductible before your auto insurance starts paying will help determine whether it's wise to file the claim or pay for the repairs yourself. Another important factor in that decision is your claims history, Wilson says.

"If you or your kids have had a string of previous claims, a company may say you've exceeded their internal guidelines for this type of policy, and in some states they may 'nonrenew' you for that," he says. "Say you have a $1,000 deductible and $1,500 in damage. Do you want to possibly jeopardize your insurability with this company by filing this $1,500 claim, or do you eat the $500 and not turn it in?"

But Wilson says insurers won't raise rates for a one-time deer-related claim because they don't hold drivers at fault in deer crashes, which have become increasingly common.

 

Steer clear of deer

Driving tips to avoid deer:

  • Watch for deer between sunset and midnight, and during pre-dawn hours when they're most active.
  • Be especially attentive for deer during the October-to-January migration and mating season.
  • Slow down in posted deer-crossing areas.
  • If you see one deer, remember that others are probably nearby.
  • Use high beams at night in deer territory when there is no oncoming traffic.
  • If a deer is frozen in your headlights, honk your horn in a loud, sustained blast.
  • Don't rely on deer whistles or roadside reflectors; they have not been proven effective.
  • If you can't avoid a deer, brake and stay in your lane. Don't endanger other vehicles.
  • If you strike a deer, do not touch the animal. It may harm you or further injure itself.
  • Call police immediately if you hit or are hit by a deer.
  • Take pictures of the accident scene and vehicle damage for your insurance claim.

Sources: Insurance Information Institute. Mitch Wilson, Ohio Insurance Institute.

Grabbing the problem by the antlers

Marcel Huijser, research ecologist for the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University, says deer-vehicle collisions have increased by 50% over the past couple of decades as suburban sprawl has encroached farther into deer country.

"We have and want wildlife; we have and want roads, so if we can't get rid of one or the other, we're pretty much going to have wildlife-vehicle collisions," he says.

Attempts to reduce accidents with those familiar yellow-and-black "Deer Crossing" road signs have been as ineffective as the deer whistles that some people have taken to mounting on their cars.

"What do you do with a sign that says 'Watch out for deer next 34 miles'? You forget about it 100 yards later," says Huijser. "Same with whistles. There is no evidence that they work, but people like them because they're inexpensive, and it seems like they're doing something."

Of the more than 40 mitigation measures Huijser has studied to curb deer-vehicle collisions, he says only two can help to reduce the annual costs and human suffering.

"Wildlife fencing in combination with (overpasses) and underpasses provides safe (highway) crossing opportunities" for deer, he says. "The other is animal detection systems -- technology deployed along the side of the road that detects large animals as they approach and activates warning signs for drivers. ... Some of these systems can bring from 50% up to nearly 100% reduction in collisions in some areas."

Huijser says auto insurance companies could save money and lives by working with local governments to implement these two mitigation strategies where deer crashes are most prevalent.

"You have three arguments pleading for implementation measures: human safety, nature conservation, and the cold, hard dollar," he says. "It's actually costing more money to do nothing."

Copyright 2013, Bankrate Inc.