Time to slow down: deer strikes are up in Suffolk County

It’s a scenario familiar to all North Fork drivers, whether from personal experience, a near miss or just a healthy caution: that startling moment when a deer bolts out in front a moving car. 

The late fall is the peak time for deer strikes because it’s mating season, when hormone-driven bucks — and the does they’re pursuing — are most likely to dash into traffic.

Last year in New York State, there were nearly 37,000 car crashes where an “animal’s actions” was listed as a contributing factor, and most of those were deer strikes, according to DMV data compiled by AAA Northeast.

If a deer does run out in front of a car, the best thing for a driver to do is not to swerve, experts said. Instead, hit the brakes and honk the horn, which may be enough to startle the animal out of the way. If a crash is inevitable, the best course is to steer into the deer. 

“Drivers should never swerve to avoid any animal, especially on country roads,” AAA Northeast spokesman Robert Sinclair Jr. said in a statement released earlier this fall.  

The reason is simple: Swerving to the right could send the car into a ditch, tree or telephone pole, while swerving left could result in a deadly head-on crash with an oncoming vehicle. 

“While it’s not desirable, hitting a deer is better than hitting a tree,” Mr. Sinclair said. 

Suffolk County ranked sixth among the state’s 62 counties with the most animal involved crashes — 1,216 — in 2022. In 2021, the county was home to the second-most documented animal collisions. 

The most dangerous hours are near dusk, when dwindling sunlight and a darkening landscape make it especially hard to see animals.

Mild winters in recent years have limited temperature-related stress and mortality among area deer, and no outbreaks of epizootic hermorrhagic disease have been recently detected in local populations, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which manages deer numbers throughout the state by issuing permits during regulated hunting seasons. 

The area’s herds have exploded in size, with estimates ranging from 6,000 to as many as 10,000 deer living throughout the towns of Riverhead and Southold— six to 10 times what the local ecosystem can sustain. 

While human fatalities from deer strikes are rare, an SUV traveling east on Northern Parkway in Plainview earlier this month reportedly burst into flames after striking a deer that bolted in front the vehicle. The driver and passenger escaped without injury.

AAA Northeast recommends that to protect against deer strikes, drivers should scan the shoulders of the road, stay within the speed limit and keep their high beams on when there’s no oncoming traffic. Rounding curves with limited visibility also requires vigilance and caution. If a crash does occur, move the vehicle to a safe location and contact the police, Mr. Sinclair said, and take photographs of the damage when possible. Deer strikes generally fall under comprehensive coverage so drivers should contact their insurance companies as soon as possible. 

Andrew Hetherington of R&K Precision Autoworks on Sound Avenue in Riverhead said that growing up in the area, he rarely saw deer, but now they are everywhere. Widespread development has cut into their habitat, he said, and “they’ve got nowhere else to go.

“When you’re driving out here, you’ve really got to keep your head on a swivel.” 

Southold Highway Superintendent Dan Goodwin said deer could spring out in front of a car almost anywhere on the North Fork.

“They’re pretty much … all through town,” he said. “They just pop up in a lot of random spots, so you’re kind of at the mercy of wherever they are at a given moment.”

Still, he continued, “the areas where we get them the most are the more heavily wooded areas where there’s not as much clearance between the edge of the road and a tree line where they might be hiding.”

Mr. Goodwin said that mating season, which begins in early November and runs through late December, sees the most deer strikes annually, but he added that “we deal with them all year long.” 

As of Nov. 27, 436 deer carcasses had been brought to the Southold Town landfill, Mr. Goodwin said, 96 of those by highway department members. Others were hauled in by residents.

He said that as long as deer carcasses are in a right of way on state or county roads and property, his department is authorized to retrieve them. But they are not permitted to remove them from private property.

“If a deer gets hit and then wanders onto private property, we can’t pick that up,” he said.