One headlight runs down a two-lane highway an hour after sunset in the small town of Princeton. Suddenly — and too late — the light flashes on furry muscle and a pair of glowing white orbs. Deer.
Roger Claassen's motorcycle collides with the animal and he's sent sprawling. Bystanders come to his aid, but then a minivan comes barreling down the same way. That driver swerves to avoid the crowd, and instead hits Claassen, still on the ground, and kills him.
This accident, which happened in late October, was one of an estimated 35,000 deer-vehicle collisions Minnesotans will have this year. Nationally, there are more than a million crashes, with $1 billion in property damage, 10,000 injuries, and 200 deaths a year.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) tells drivers to be alert and "expect the unexpected," especially at dawn and dusk in fall months, when the deer mating period coincides with our hunting season.
But we're not the problem. Or we're just half of it. Instead of asking people to become safer drivers, why not teach the deer to become safer runners?
Wildlife crossings — tunnels, and grass-covered bridges that let animals cross roads without dodging cars like they're in a real-life game of Frogger — have proven remarkably effective at cutting crash numbers.These creature-friendly features first appeared in Europe, and were adopted more recently in Canada, in the Banff National Park.
Once cynical Canadians were convinced animals were actually using a few structures built in the 1980s, they agreed to shell out $6 million apiece for a pair of 200-foot-wide overpasses now used by elk, deer, wolves, and bears, among others.
After the animals figured out how to use the crossings, crash rates plummeted. The number of deer-vehicle collisions in these areas has dropped by 95 percent.
A few American examples exist, though most have focused on protecting animals, rather than motorists: the endangered panthers of Florida, Colorado's scarce lynx population, or desert tortoises out West. The largest system in the U.S. was built in Montana, where, at the insistence of Native American tribes, a highway expansion leveraged federal funds to build dozens of pathways for culturally important species.
The idea of bridges for Bambi typically gets a laugh, Patricia Cramer says, followed by indignant opposition from stingy bean counters. Then she shows them the video: Using remote cameras stationed in Montana and Utah, the Utah State University researcher has recorded the safe passage of some 60,000 deer.
Cramer played her tapes last week in Pierre, South Dakota, in a meeting with the state's leading transportation engineers. South Dakota doesn't have any crossings yet, a fact she was reminded of on her drive back home.
"Oh, my gosh," she exclaimed over the phone, changing lanes to avoid roadkill. "There's just blood and guts all over the road."
Blood on the highway isn't a concern for Tony Cornish, a Republican legislator from Vernon Center, who thinks we can shoot our way out of the problem, if one exists at all. While Cramer was presenting in Pierre, Cornish was posted-up in his deer stand here in Minnesota.
"I'm doing my part to try and help the motorists," he whispered into his cell phone.Cornish thinks there would be "little to no interest" for investments in over- and underpasses for critters, citing a "phenomenal cost" to address a "fact of life we have to get used to."
He and other sportsmen, and wildlife experts, all spoke in terms of costs and benefits, and had roughly the same question: How many crashes are we trying to stop?
"Fifty-eight," says Cramer. The accepted total public cost of a deer-vehicle collision with no human injuries is $17,000, including towing, repairs, carcass disposal, and lost work productivity. A $1 million structure that stops 58 crashes from happening has paid for itself.
"These systems would prevent accidents," says Steve Merchant, the DNR's wildlife populations manager. "But it comes down to a cost-benefit analysis, and I don't know who makes those decisions."
Scott Dibble makes those decisions. As chair of the Senate transportation funding committee, the Minneapolis Democrat spends most of his time scratching and clawing to get more money for roads that would be used by people. Animals haven't come up, he says. But after a couple minutes thinking about it, he wasn't sure why not.
"It doesn't sound super crazy, it just sounds expensive," Dibble says. "But absolutely we should take a look at it. It's interesting to put the whole subject of deer-vehicle collisions on the table. Everyone knows someone who's hit a deer. I mean, my mom hit a deer."
Mine too. In the late 1990s, my mom spent a lot of time traveling along darkened roads as a state employee in North Dakota. She hit two deer, totaling two state fleet vehicles, and once ended up flipping upside down in a ditch.
She eventually came to think of the whole thing like a sick joke out of the Far Side comic strip. She pictured a circle of deer sitting out in some darkened field, arguing over whose turn it was to jump into the highway. It's not bad, as far as mom jokes about car crashes go.
Now I've come up with one of my own.
Why did the deer cross the road? Because we gave it no other choice.