Deer in YOUR Headlights


You can be confronted suddenly by a deer crossing in front of you particularly on rural roads and particularly at nightfall. Understanding deer behavior can help you reduce the risk of a deer encounter with your front bumper. Deer are large beasts and your car can be heavily damaged with a collision. Also, your natural instinct of avoiding an accident can actually put you at greater risk. This article comes from my experience as a driver, from my insurance clients and a discussion with a friend, James Tennison, who is an accomplished deer hunter.

Why They are Here

Deer and other wildlife are a natural part of the landscape. Just because we built houses and roads here doesn’t mean that the deer don’t still inhabit the neighboring wild lands. Weeds and tasty bushes (think of roses as “deer candy”) are a natural draw for deer to graze in our neighborhoods. Drought conditions can drive deer to whatever vegetation is available and the ditches full of fresh succulent weeds along rural roads can be “what’s for dinner.”

Our native deer species is the Whitetail Deer (the namesake white tail is obvious). The population of whitetail deer is estimated to be between 3 and 4 million in Texas. Whitetail Bucks (male deer) ranging in size to 150 lbs and six feet in height and can have substantial antlers by Fall. Whitetail Does (female deer) are typically 90 to 100 lbs and are smaller in stature with no antlers. Baby deer are called Fawns.

Think Like Bambi

Deer, as a group, have very predictable instinctual behavior:

Doe and fawn family groups are common in the Spring. Bucks particularly, as they mature, are loners. Food sources will bring deer together including their favorite roadside weed patches.

Driving Tip: As a driver, when you see a single deer, expect to see the rest of the deer clan to dart into view at any moment.

Deer are very territorial with does often staying very close to their birthplace to feed at their favorite weed patches. If you have seen deer grazing along the road before, you are likely to encounter the same “local group” in the same place again. While deer have a natural instinct to stay in the same area, drought and over population will drive deer to forage beyond their normal range. You will find deer where their food is.

Deer have a seasonal cycle that can impact behavior:

Things get wild with our local deer starting in late October during “The Rut” or breeding season. That doe darting suddenly in front of your car is getting chased by a buck with unwelcome intentions. Neither of them is paying any attention to the road and the massive vehicles traveling at high speed on it. Sudden high-speed deer encounters are an added hazard during the late fall.

Winter can force deer populations in to closer contact with people as they forage into neighborhoods when their natural dinner plate is more limited. Besides eating your pretty garden, the deer will often surprise you as you drive to work in the morning or home at night. A startled deer will bolt in an unpredicted direction. This is a natural survival instinct. If you come across a group of foraging deer, slow down and let them move away.

Spring is when the fawns are born, normally in May. You will often get startled by does and their broods. Does will typically give birth to two fawns each. Vegetation is abundant in Spring. While deer will still be around our roadways, encounters will be less frequent.

Summer can be bountiful for deer and the herds will disappear into the woods. When Summer is a time of brutal drought, as it has been in area in 2011, with survival at stake, deer will venture well beyond their normal range to find moist green plants to eat. Deer will forage along roadways in the drainage ditches looking for food of weeds. During drought, deer vs. auto encounters will be at the greatest risk.

Deer are adapted to many landscapes but evolved as forest dwellers:

Be watchful for deer as you drive along roads that pass through wooded areas. Any wooded or brushy area (including your tree-lined neighborhood street) is deer country. Deer, by instinct, use the wood brush for concealment. Openings in the woodlands are natural feeding areas for deer and roads built in wooded areas are such openings.

Deer Encounter!

You are hurrying home just before sundown and suddenly a deer has jumped into the roadway ahead of you. How you handle this “deer encounter” can be important.

The best reaction is to slow down fast but not to suddenly apply the brakes full force. Avoiding a collision with a hundred pound animal is good, however a sudden emergency braking response puts your vehicle nose-down scooping the deer over the hood and increasing the chance of it sliding into your windshield hoofs, antlers all. A collision with your grill and radiator will do substantial damage and likely kill the deer. A collision with your windshield has the potential of getting you severely hurt.

Another normal reaction, when having a deer encounter, is to veer away from the deer. Again, avoiding a deer / car collision is good, however, you can veer into a bigger problem if you lose control or hit another car, tree or other object. Deer, when startled, bolt in an unpredictable direction and can bolt directly to where you have shifted. If you are going to have a collision, your auto is designed to absorb the shock best at the front. Slowing down and staying straight is normally the best choice.

We have many hunters in our area with pickup trucks equipped with deer guards on the front to handle front-on deer collisions and reduce damage. If you live in an area with a large deer population, it can be a good safeguard.

Deer can be transfixed by auto highlights, particularly high beams. One tip my hunter friend told me was to flash your lights and honk your horn to break their concentration. You want the deer to react and move off the road and away from danger (your car).

No single rule will keep you from having a deer encounter on the road. Being alert in deer habitat and slowing down during early evening particularly in wooded areas is your best safe-guard. When deer are in view, proceed with caution and expect sudden movements and more deer.


I have enjoyed see deer along the road including adorable fawns. We share our world with them. If you drive in rural areas, expect and be ready for a deer encounter.

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