Date of this Version
Blackwell BF, Seamans TW, DeVault TL (2014) White-Tailed Deer Response to Vehicle Approach: Evidence of Unclear and Present Danger. PLoS ONE 9(10): e109988. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0109988
The fundamental causes of animal-vehicle collisions are unclear, particularly at the level of animal detection of approaching vehicles and decision-making. Deer-vehicle collisions (DVCs) are especially costly in terms of animal mortality, property damage, and safety. Over one year, we exposed free-ranging white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) to vehicle approach under low ambient light conditions, from varying start distances, and vehicle speeds from 20 km/h to approximately 90 km/ h. We modeled flight response by deer to an approaching vehicle and tested four hypotheses: 1) flight-initiation distance (FID) would correlate positively with start distance (indicating a spatial margin of safety); 2) deer would react to vehicle speed using a temporal margin of safety; 3) individuals reacting at greater FIDs would be more likely to cross the path of the vehicle; and 4) crossings would correlate positively with start distance, approach speed, and distance to concealing/refuge cover. We examined deer responses by quantiles. Median FID was 40% of start distance, irrespective of start distance or approach speed. Converting FID to time-to-collision (TTC), median TTC was 4.6 s, but uncorrelated with start distance or approach speed. The likelihood of deer crossing in front of the vehicle was not associated with greater FIDs or other explanatory variables. Because deer flight response to vehicle approach was highly variable, DVCs should be more likely with increasing vehicle speeds because of lower TTCs for a given distance. For road sections characterized by frequent DVCs, we recommend estimating TTC relative to vehicle speed and candidate line-of-sight distances adjusted downward by (1-P), where P represents our findings for the proportion of start distance by which .75% of deer had initiated flight. Where road design or conservation goals limit effectiveness of line-of-sight maintenance, we suggest incorporation of roadway obstacles that force drivers to slow vehicles, in addition to posting advisory speed limits.