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The Buck Stops Here

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Public education about avoiding car-deer collisions won’t be supplanted anytime soon by safety technology more sophisticated than the seatbelt and airbag.

Oh, deer.

Michigan’s regular firearms deer-hunting season got under way Saturday and runs through Nov. 30, with an estimated 600,000 hunters slogging through fields and forests in search of unwitting whitetails.

About 210,000 of the 385,000 deer harvested statewide in 2013 were bagged during firearms season, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. As if November already wasn’t a rough month for deer, November also is the peak month for car-deer collisions.

According to Michigan State Police data, there were 49,205 car-deer accidents statewide in 2013 that left 1,212 people injured. A dozen were killed, including seven motorcycle riders, four light-vehicle drivers and, interestingly, one pedestrian – the victim of possibly the only collision from which the deer might have walked away.

None of last year’s fatal car-deer crashes occurred in November, however. One reason may be that the drumbeat of beware-of-deer warnings issued year-round to Michigan motorists is ratcheted up around now. Public education won’t be supplanted anytime soon by safety technology more sophisticated than the seatbelt and airbag.

Night-vision cameras, radar, LiDAR, ultrasonic and other technologies can let you know a deer is nearby. But there’s a critical difference between detecting a stationary deer and one bounding out of the woods and across your path. Current collision-avoidance systems rely mainly on automatic braking, but it isn’t much help if you ignore the standard if counterintuitive-sounding advice to brake firmly but not swerve and let the flesh fall where it may.

At the point of contact the most essential safety technology is the airbag and seatbelt, neither of which can guarantee protection from a 200-lb. (440-kg) spikehorn buck crashing through your windshield.

Aftermarket systems mounted on the front of the vehicle trigger, so to speak, warnings to deer using sound waves or strobe lights designed to get their attention and scare them off before they dash in front of your car. Manufacturers’ enthusiastic claims, however, are tempered by little independent research into, and even less consensus on, these systems’ effectiveness.

The State of Indiana in 2004 installed roadside sensors along the Indiana Toll Road that set off flashing lights to warn drivers when animals were detected. The state abandoned the system four years later because the sensors were difficult to maintain and often were misaligned.

Could the autonomous car save Bambi? Google’s self-driving car is stuffed with LiDAR sensors and other electronics designed to sense a wayward pedestrian, cyclist or a deer. But would the self-driving car know it’s supposed to brake while continuing straight ahead, as we drivers are instructed to do? Would it simply sound an alarm and leave the rest up to the driver?

If technology couldn’t override drinking, drug use, speeding, failure to wear seatbelts and all the other human factors that contributed to 951 traffic deaths on Michigan roads in 2013, how can it protect people from being killed or injured by deer who don’t know enough to stay out of a car’s way?

I get a deer-in-the-headlights feeling just thinking about it.

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Drew Winter

Drew Winter is Editor-in-Chief of WardsAuto World magazine and a Senior Editor at WardsAuto.com. He was won numerous awards for his work in both print and digital media and has been...

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Tom Murphy is executive editor of WardsAuto World magazine, with an emphasis on technology and suppliers. He leads selection of the Ward’s 10 Best Engines and Ward’s 10 Best Interiors...
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