Deer in the Headlights…

I have often wondered where the expression “deer in the headlights” came from.

Now I know.


Reports of the growing deer population in the Twin Cities metro area have littered the airways for weeks – the number of car/deer accidents have risen dramatically, prompting authorities to start thinning the herds (done at night, with night scopes, to lessen the public outcry).

People who know me know that I love all creatures and will, in fact, go out of my way to save a wayward spider, ladybug, moth or fly from certain death. While I understand the need to cull the herds of deer, I do not readily participate in the act of hunting. Personal choice. No debate.

We’ve had a couple visits from deer to our yard over the past couple of weeks – something that excites both dogs and humans alike. How neat is it to see deer (or fox) when you live in a first ring (and well-populated) community just minutes from a major metropolitan city? The irony in these sightings is that the last one, consisting of 3 deer, was on the eve of deer hunting season.

My ride to and from work takes me through the middle of a county park. I love the ride for the various views that it offers – both in wild life and nature’s offering of grasses, plants and trees. I often consider that part of my ride to be a little piece of tranquility, offering a very calming, grounding effect.

Until recently.

The number of close encounters with deer have increased dramatically. More so this year than in the previous ten years that I’ve driven this route.

I blame this mainly on the fact that my work hours are causing me to leave work at the height of the ‘dinner’ hour for the deer – they’re out foraging, crossing the road to go to the lake for a drink of water before the ice cuts them off for the remainder of the winter.

I’ve found myself being hyper-vigilant the past couple of weeks because the road has been littered with dead deer on both ends of the work day. No matter the time of day, the sight of a dead deer (or possum or raccoon) makes me sad because it’s the humans who are trespassing through their home… And the critters have very little chance of out running or surviving an encounter with a vehicle that weighs a ton (or more).

And I’ve been worried that I would do what I’ve avoided to do for almost 30 years of driving – hit and kill a deer (or any creature, for that matter). (Actually, I’ve been even more paranoid that a deer struck by a vehicle traveling the other direction would become airborne and smash through my window, killing me instantly… Hey, it’s happened to others. My company actually lost an employee when the motorcycle he and his wife were riding got hit by a deer – from the side – sending them out of control, killing him instantly, leaving her a widow. So I take deer encounters very seriously.)

Every night this week, I’ve seen a deer standing on the side of the road, watching the cars zoom by (35 mph on a dark, sometimes icy, windy road seems like zooming!), considering the moment that they will dart across the road.

A few weeks ago, what appeared to be a coyote (more likely than a wolf) crossed the road just a hair in front of my headlight beams at a full run – had I been going the speed limit and not been paying attention, I probably would have struck and killed it. I was actually putzing along at a tidge under 30 mph, hands gripping the steering wheel, fingers numb – given the dark conditions, I felt going any faster would have been dangerous.)

Because of that near-encounter, my level of anxiety has grown exponentially over the past few weeks…

The other night was particularly dark, the moon obscured by snow laden clouds.

My eyes darted from side to side, and occasionally skywards, looking for any sign of a deer. The small sports car fifty feet in front of me nearly collided with a large deer who decided at the same moment to saunter across the road. Thankfully, disaster was narrowly diverted. But the close encounter made me all the more vigilant. Where there’s one deer, there’s bound to be another, egging each other on in a deadly game of chicken….

Well, today on the way home from work, my close encounters came to an abrupt end. Maybe that should read ‘thump’. Yep, that’s right. I became a statistic.

As it turns out, I wasn’t actually driving, so technically my record remains intact. Although the grill of the Explorer no longer is…

I’m more than a little relieved to report that the deer that appeared in the blink of an eye was spared death or serious injury – although I suspect that it will have quite the story to tell the herd… As luck would have it, Big Bro had ‘borrowed’ his car and had driven me to work. He was driving home, too, and his defensive driving skills probably saved us from a more serious accident. The impact with the deer was dead on, but at a relatively low speed – dark conditions, light snowfall and a tight corner all contributed to a ‘best case’ scenario for all involved.

If I close my eyes, I can still see the deer coming out of nowhere (it had bounded down the hillside next to the road), disappeared briefly in front of the Explorer with a thump, then frantically skidding across the road, legs flailing to gain a purchase, then it was up and disappeared down the bank of the road to the lake. A matter of 10 seconds at most (probably closer to 5 or 6 seconds).

It was a completely unavoidable accident. Had the deer appeared a few feet further in front of our moving vehicle, I am convinced Big Bro would have avoided it completely; a foot shorter and the deer would have collided against the passenger side of the Explorer or jumped across the hood altogether.

We stopped the car at the next turn. We got out of the car to assess the damage, expecting the worse – while the entire grill was gone (except for a couple of chunks which had wedged in by radiator – the cold plastic shattered immediately upon impact), the bumper, complete with license plate, remained, there was no blood, but several tufts of deer fur could be seen stuck in odd places. Again, we weren’t even going the speed limit, so all parties probably came out in pretty good shape overall (although I’m sure that the deer will be sore and have a nasty case of road rash). Big Bro ran back to check to make sure that the deer was indeed OK – and to see what pieces of the Explorer might be impeding traffic. He reported that he could see the deer walking (albeit with a slight limp) along the lake shore…

Despite the limited damage to the Explorer, we got a quote from the dealership to get a new grill – $265 special order – plus it will need to be painted. Total repairs will probably run about $400. While I cringe at the added expense, the truth is it could have been much worse… Losing the bumper would have been very expensive; having the airbags deploy would have totaled the car. Really, it’s a small price to pay when you can walk away.

Kudos to Big Bro for his quick response time and for keeping us on the road. I honestly can’t say I would have been able to handle the situation the same.