Deer warning signs ineffective, studies find

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Kansas is considering fencing off part of one highway; Missouri doesn't plan to change state policy.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- With research indicating that deer warning signs don't help prevent accidents, Kansas is joining some other states in trying to find ways to keep the animals and vehicles from colliding.

Some states are studying replacing the yellow signs with the silhouette of a leaping deer, with tall fences, reflectors or even roadside sensors.

Kansas is considering fencing along part of Highway 10 in Johnson County that would direct deer to existing underpasses, or changing the way it uses deer-warning signs.

While acknowledging that the signs are not effective, Missouri officials for now don't plan to change state policy that places a sign when there is an average of 10 deer killed in a three-year period.

"It's a very complex problem where you're not only dealing with the driver, you're dealing with the animal," said Keith Knapp, director of the Deer Vehicle Crash Information Clearinghouse at the University of Wisconsin.

Nationwide, vehicles and deer collide an estimated 1.5 million times a year, causing 150 deaths and more than $1 billion in vehicle damage. An average insurance claim can run about $2,000.

Deer collisions in Kansas and Missouri killed nine people and injured 701 in 2004.

"It's nice to have those signs to make you a little more aware, but the bottom line is if that deer just jumps in there unexpectedly, you may not have the time you need to react," said Kansas City police officer Jonas Baughman.

The main problem is that a deer sign does not mean a deer is nearby, and experts say that drivers tend not to react to a hazard they don't see.

For example, Christy Ostmeyer, 49, of Stilwell, hit a deer on U.S. 69 in Overland Park two years ago. The crash destroyed her 2004 Toyota Corolla, but she was unhurt.

"You see those signs everywhere," she said. "I don't think you really pay attention to them."

A University of Kansas study, which was sponsored by the state Transportation Department, has prompted Kansas to rethink how it tries to prevent deer crashes, which were up about 7 percent between 2002 and 2004.

The state has between 1,000 and 2,000 of the signs posted, at a cost of $300 each. The Missouri Department of Transportation has posted 210 deer signs, at a cost of $350 each.

Spokesman Jeff Briggs said the Missouri transportation officials realize the signs are ineffective, but he added: "If we can save even one deer collision, then that's certainly worth putting a couple signs up."

The state has ruled out using fencing or motion sensors because of their expense, Briggs said. It also tried using roadside reflectors to bounce headlight beams on deer and scare them, he said, but it didn't work.

Kansas authorizes posting a sign when three deer crashes or more occur within a quarter-mile in a year.

"If we decide to continue to use any type of warning sign, it's going to be on a much more limited basis," said Dave Church, chief of traffic engineering for the Kansas Department of Transportation.

Church said the state is trying to find a way to remove signs where the deer population is not as heavy. It also may add messages to signs indicating when deer might be likely to jump onto the highway.

"If you use (warning signs) in the appropriate places and you use fewer of them, they have a bigger impact," said Knapp. "They've got to be in the right places so people trust them."

Kansas wants to test deer fencing along Kansas 10 in Johnson County, which led the state in deer crashes in 2004.

Plans call for installing 1 1/2 miles of fencing on both sides of Kansas 10 at Mill Creek near the Olathe-Lenexa line and at Kill Creek in De Soto. The 8- to 9-foot fencing would replace 4-foot fencing and would guide deer to underpasses where they can cross the highway.

The state hopes to start the test in a year, after financing is found. The project could cost at least $480,000.

Kansas also has joined 14 other states in a $1.4 million study in Montana to determine whether flashing signs triggered by animal movement would reduce wrecks at Yellowstone National Park.

Solar-powered transmitters mounted on poles emit radio waves to a sign with a receiver about a quarter-mile away. If an animal breaks the radio signal, it sets off a flashing sign alerting drivers that an animal is nearby.

However, the system has problems, said Marcel Huijser, the research ecologist leading the study at Montana State University. Sometimes, transmitters shoot the radio beams too high, allowing animals to go undetected.

"It will probably be a few more years until technology catches up with what we're trying to do, before we even think about installing something like that in Kansas," Church said.

Information from: The Kansas City Star,

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