I-80 fence targets deer-vehicle collisions

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Fence segment along I-80, near the Platte River

Story and photos by Erin Myers, NewsNetNebraska

Collisions between vehicles and deer happen.  Perhaps more than most Nebraskans imagine.  The average Nebraska driver has a 1 in 109 chance of hitting a deer according to accident statistics from American Family Insurance.

Former UNL student, Jennifer Thedinga knows first-hand what it’s like.  “My car was completely airborne, I spun around and ended up on the side of the road.”

Thedinga commutes several times a week on Interstate-80 between Lincoln and Omaha.  On one such trip two years ago, a deer ran in front of Thedinga’s Ford Focus near Mahoney State Park.

“Luckily”, she says, she was the only car involved and walked away without injuries.

Reducing deer-vehicle accidents like Thedinga’s is the goal of the Nebraska Department Roads with the installation of the state’s first ‘deer fence.’

Location, location, location

The 8-foot tall fence stretches four-miles along I-80 from Pflug Road to the Mahoney State Park Interchange.  The $1.1 million dollar project features electrified portions on the east side of the highway, but not the west side because of more homes in the area.

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From May to November of 2010, the state removed 38 deer carcasses from the stretch of I-80, and received only five accident reports.

“We tried to focus on the areas where we were seeing a lot of collisions.”  Brian Johnson, a roadway design engineer with the Department of Roads, says they took careful consideration when deciding where to place the fence.

“From ‘98 to 2003, we looked at the accident record and most of the animal-vehicle collisions with deer were occurring to the west side of the Platte River, and we decided to run the fence up to the Mahoney interchange”

“That’s why we have the highest deer-collision rates in the state”

The Department of Roads attributes higher accident rates to the lack of safe and accessible crossing paths for wild animals.

“We have four existing bridge structures and none of them had any sort of wildlife under-crossing capability,” stated Johnson.

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Example of new wildlife under-crossing path near the Platte River

Officials with the Department of Roads hope the clearing of ‘wild-life under-crossings’ along with the fence will assist in funneling animals away from the interstate.

Prior to the installation of the fence, Johnson says, “it was very obvious that deer wouldn’t even go underneath these under crossings, and they were much more willing to take their chances in traffic.  That’s why we have the highest deer-collision rates in the state,” remarked Johnson. “When redesigning the bridges with the lane expansions, we made sure to clear it out for them.”

In addition, Nebraska Department of Roads says a shock associated with the fence will keep deer at a distance.

“After a few years, deer like to ‘pressure check’, they like to push on the fence.  With the electric fence, they won’t do that more than a couple of times.  We don’t need a stronger fence, we just need something that gives them a psychological reminder to keep away from it,” said Johnson.

Fixing the problem

“I’m glad they’re doing something about it,” said Thedinga.

She says the fence along I-80 is long overdue.

“I’m surprised it’s only the first one.  I think that something like this would be useful in a lot of areas.”

According to Johnson, the success of the project will be measured by the use of the designated paths as well as the amount of reported accidents and number of carcasses removed.

Officials say more projects like this may be in the state’s future.

“I think there’s possible locations in Nebraska where we could put more,” said Johnson.  “From seeing this, it is readily apparent to me that you can’t just throw a fence anywhere and think it’s going to do the job. It’s probably going to be something that people request.  I just hope we can find areas that work out as well as this one.”

One for the road

Regardless of where you’re driving, Thedinga advises being cautious, especially in the fall season.  According to State Farm, there are a few tips to reduce the chances of colliding with a deer:

  • Be aware of posted deer crossing signs. These are placed in active deer crossing areas.
  • Remember that deer are most active between 6 and 9 p.m.
  • Use high beam headlamps as much as possible at night to illuminate the areas from which deer will enter roadways.
  • Keep in mind that deer generally travel in herds – if you see one, there is a strong possibility others are nearby.
  • Do not rely on car-mounted deer whistles.
  • If a deer collision seems inevitable, attempting to swerve out of the way could cause you to lose control of your vehicle or place you in the path of an oncoming vehicle.

Despite the peace-of-mind offered by the fence, Thedinga knows the risk is real.  She says to be aware of your surroundings, be prepared to stop or honk your horn because often the animal may freeze in front of you.

Thedinga added with a slight smile, “they don’t call it ‘deer in the headlights’ for nothing.”