Published October 30, 2003, in The Washington Post

Drive the Deer Out of the Headlights

By Marc Fisher

My wife was driving our daughter Julia home from school just before dusk the other day when suddenly Julia pointed out the side window and blurted, " Deer! "

Before the word was completely out of Julia's mouth, an eight-point buck leaped into our Honda, crushing the front end. Its antlers crashed through the windshield. The animal bounced over the vehicle and landed clear on the other side of the car, which was pretty well demolished.

A couple of hours later, when I related the tale to the insurance claims agent, her first question was, "Is the deer deceased?"

"My wife and daughter are shaken, but fine," I replied.

Undeterred, the insurance agent continued asking after the poor animal. "Who's taking it away? Is it off the road? Is the road clear?"

I tried to let the agent know that the fate of the beast that had attacked my family was not exactly at the top of my list of concerns. Actually, the D.C. police had already arranged for removal of the animal. (For all the carping about emergency aid in the District, we managed to hit the public service trifecta: Police, fire and ambulance all arrived quickly and helped in every possible way.)

But I wondered why the insurance industry would exhibit such a powerful interest in the fate of a wayward deer.

It turns out that deer hits are the crisis du jour in the car insurance field, increasing by more than 10 percent a year over the past five years, and that we live hard by the most populous deer belt in the nation, a swath of deer -infested country stretching from West Virginia through northern Virginia and central Maryland.

These huge vermin -- the one that bounded out of the wood and into our car weighed about 300 pounds, according to the insurance company -- are a particular menace this time of year, from October through December, when the animals are mating and the bucks blithely chase the babes through the woods and onto the roads, even in the middle of the day.

For decades now, suburbs and cities as well have wrangled with the question of how to kill off deer without enraging the Bambi lovers of the world. The problem is generally most severe in fancy suburbs filled with too many folks who have nothing better to do with their time and money but support deer -lover groups.

(The very first story I wrote for the New York Daily News 25 years ago was about one such battle in tony Princeton, N.J. The headline writer, the legendary Alex Michelini, slapped this beaut on the story: "Oh Deer! They're on the Horns of a Dilemma!" The idle rich carried the day, by the way, and efforts to thin the herd and feed the hunters were defeated.)

Maybe you need to have a 300-pound deer land on the car carrying your loved ones to gain some clarity on this issue: These critters need to be someone's dinner -- and pronto.

A few years ago, when we saw a deer ambling down the center of our street in the city, we thought, "How cute." Now I see these creatures for what they are: unlicensed, uninsured drivers with total disregard for human life.

The National Safety Council calculates that deer kill more than 100 people and injure about 4,000 more each year. Deer hits cost the insurance industry about $ 1 billion in claims in 2002, with each hit costing an average of about $ 2,000. The repair bill for our car is predicted to be about four times that cost.

As you might expect for any phenomenon with that kind of price tag, a huge industry of researchers and consultants has developed around deer hits.

But despite the existence of a Deer -Vehicle Crash Information Clearinghouse and other such prestigious institutes, the best advice anyone has come up with is to be attentive when you drive, slow down and blow your horn if you see deer at the side of the road, brake firmly if a deer is in the way -- don't swerve, because it could confuse the animal, causing it to run into you. And, of course, wear your seat belt.

None of which will do the slightest thing to prevent deer from running straight into your car.

It's us against them. Aim to kill.

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