Bambi threat: How to avoid free venison

November is the cruelest month– for deer eager to mate, and for hapless drivers with whom these libido-driven beasts collide.

Auto damage is a given; injury and death are possible. Last year, 201 people died in car-deer collisions in the U.S.; 24 Virginians have died since 1992.

That's not counting, of course, the staggering casualties on the deer side.

In Albemarle County, 80 deer-related accidents have been reported since August 1, according to County Police Lieutenant John Teixeira, who believes that number is slightly higher than usual.

October and November are months when the animal and human worlds are most likely to collide. Not only is it mating season– dubbed "rutting season" in the deer world– but hunting season also begins, which sends deer scurrying.

And, it gets dark earlier. About half of all deer-in-the-headlights encounters occur between 5pm and midnight, according to Erie Insurance Group, which has tracked car-deer crashes for the past five years.

James Braxton sees the casualties firsthand. He's the VDOT supervisor responsible for road maintenance in the Boyd Tavern area, and he estimates his crew picks up around 300 deer carcasses a year, called "1080s" in VDOT parlance.

"I think it's more this year," says Braxton. "One day we picked up 13.

"With the hunting season and dogs running them, they're on the move. Some places you can go and find them everyday. We patrol, and we know where they're going to be."

VDOT puts up "deer crossing" signs in many high-risk areas, says assistant resident engineer Teresa Butler. "But of course the deer can't read," says Butler. "That's to alert drivers."

VDOT also tracks how many deer it picks up. In the past month, Boyd Tavern is the leader of the pack with 150, followed by Free Union (130), Yancey Mills (100), Keene (28), and Stanardsville (20).

And Free Union tracks the deer meat another way: by the number of pounds that go to the landfill. From October 17 to November 17, carcasses totaled a whopping 13,000 pounds.

VDOT crews aren't the only ones busy. Local auto body shops see a business boom during rutting season.

"We fix from three to five cars a week," says Grant Cosner at Cosner Brothers Body Shop, who estimates the average cost "in the neighborhood of $1,500." Erie Insurance's average deer claim is $2,040.

Do insurance rates go up when deer meet autos?

"I can't speak for other insurance companies," answers Erie spokesman Mark Dombrowski, "but with Erie, deer collisions are not subject to a surcharge."

Lt. Teixeira urges the deer-struck to report the incidents. "It's not their fault the deer jumped in front of them. It's very scary. Deer have gone into windshields, and there have been injuries."

More than 1.5 million crashes involve deer each year, at an estimated $1.1 billion in vehicle damages, according to a recent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety report.

But with between 850,000 and 1 million white-tail deer running around the state, according to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, how do motorists avoid an ill-timed rendezvous with Bambi?

For starters, forget about those deer bumper-mounted whistles. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says tests have proven them worthless.

However, Lt. Teixeira says Albemarle police have some contrary evidence, at least anecdotally. "Since we've put them on police cars," says Teixeira, "we've had fewer accidents."

Experts advise more mundane measures: slow down, stay sober, and wear seatbelts (60 percent of the drivers in fatal crashes don't). Oh, and don't swerve when you find a deer in your path.

Mention you've hit a deer, as this reporter has, and legions of those who've had a too-close encounter of the vehicular kind join in to share their crash stories, leaving one to wonder: Is there anyone out there who hasn't hit a deer?

VDOT's Braxton has been unluckier than most. He's hit deer three times with his personal cars, and totaled one. And Erie Insurance data show that customers who have a deer crash claim are three times more likely to have another claim the next year.

"Drive real slow, and be as careful as you can," Braxton advises.

The upside for venison lovers is that a deer carcass on the side of the road is fair game. "You're probably helping out," by hauling it away, says Teixeira.

One man's expensive auto repair is another man's free dinner.