SIOUX CITY | While Thanksgiving may bring turkeys to mind, wildlife experts say deer should be the biggest concern during the busy holiday travel season.
Autumn is when vehicle collisions with deer are the most likely, said Tom Litchfield, deer project biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. That’s because mating season coincides with the end of the harvesting season, increasing the amount of deer travelling as the animals look for cover and a mate, Litchfield said.
Plus, with daylight savings time, there’s more traffic during dawn and dusk – right when deer are on the move.
"Five times a week, the major travel times for people are the same major travel times for deer, so it all really comes together," Litchfield said.
According to State Farm Insurance claims from 2011 to 2012, the chances that a driver will hit a deer in Iowa and South Dakota are 1 in 73 and 1 in 75 respectively, the third and fourth highest rates in the country. Iowa moved up in ranking from the year before, switching spots with South Dakota.
November has the most vehicle/deer collisions, followed by October and December.
Sioux City police Lt. Mark Kirkpatrick suggests motorists drive differently to watch out for the animals.
"The only real way to avoid them is to drive with a longer field of view," he said. "You've got to watch the road ways much farther in front of you."
Sometimes hitting a deer can be unavoidable, Kirkpatrick said. In those situations, the best course of action is to hit the brakes and maintain direction.
"We don't recommend that people swerve. The results can be more severe than striking a deer," Kirkpatrick said. "You can swerve into oncoming traffic, a steep ditch or roll over. It's hard to keep that presence of mind, though."
Litchfield said while drivers are certainly more likely to hit a deer in the fall months, State Farm's numbers don't represent the true likelihood of a collision.
"The reason Iowa and South Dakota rank so high is because we don't have great big population centers to water the stats down," he said. "If we had a great big metro center like Chicago here in Iowa, our ranking would plummet, but the people in the country would be hitting as many deer as they've always been."
(The Sioux City Council in October 2012 voted to make it illegal for people to feed deer and wild turkeys within city limits, a move prompted in part by concerns about traffic safety.)
In reality, Litchfield said the deer population in Iowa has been drastically decreasing since 2006.
Any change in Iowa's state ranking can be trumped up to mathematical noise, he said.
"There's enough variability that it can cause the data points to jump for a year," he said. "It's just variability in the data."
AAA estimates 43.4 million Americans will journey 50 miles or more from home during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Ninety percent will travel by automobile. The Wednesday before the holiday will be busiest travel day, according to AAA.