This fall, steer clear of deer -- and auto insurance claims

Deer sure look beautiful. When it comes to collisions between deer and cars, however, the damage can be pretty ugly.

More than 1.5 million deer-car collisions occur each year in the United States, according to the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The average cost of property damage resulting from a deer crash is $3,171, up more than 2 percent from 2010, according to a study released in October 2011 by State Farm. In 2009, there were 182 human deaths as a result of deer collisions, according to the institute.

Where the deer are

Your risk of hitting a deer varies depending on where you live. In West Virginia, the state where drivers are most likely to come in contact with a deer, the odds of hitting a deer in the next 12 months are 1 in 53, according to the State Farm study.

deer car collisions Other states trail close behind: Iowa ranks second, where the odds are 1 in 77; South Dakota is next with odds of 1 in 81; then Pennsylvania, with 1 in 86; and Michigan, with odds of 1 in 90. Others in the top 10 are Montana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and Wyoming.

Among the places least likely to have drivers come in contact with deer are Alaska, Texas, Massachusetts, Washington, New Mexico, Washington, D.C., Florida, California, Nevada and Arizona, according to State Farm. For those living in Hawaii, there’s especially good news: Your chances of hitting a deer are a mere 1 in 6,267.

Deer collisions and auto insurance

In deer-rich places such as Michigan, deer crashes occur year round, says Lori Conarton, chair of the Michigan Deer Crash Coalition. That number tends to spike during mating season, which runs from October through December.

If you hit a deer, first check the damage to your car. Don’t go near the animal, Conarton says. Call your local law enforcement agency for help, and report the crash to your auto insurance company.

Just how much of the damage will your auto insurance policy cover? Here are four guidelines to walk you through the auto insurance end of deer-car collisions:

1.Know your coverage. To have your insurance policy cover a deer collision, you need to purchase optional comprehensive coverage, says Michelle O’Connor, president of O'Connor Insurance Associates Inc. in Charlotte, N.C. On Sept. 18, 2011, as Lori French drove her 2004 Saturn VUE south of Chicago, a deer suddenly appeared in her line of vision. An instant later, the two collided and French’s vehicle was totaled. “I was going about 65 miles per hour; I slowed down to 60 by the time I hit the deer,” she says. French had collision and comprehensive coverage on her Saturn; as of late October, she was waiting for the check from her insurance company to cover the vehicle’s value.

2. Understand the deductible. Even if your policy covers deer collisions, you’ll need to pay the deductible toward any repairs before the insurance company will cover the rest. If the damage done to the car is $300 and you have a $500 deductible, you’ll pay for repairs out of pocket. If the damage is $3,000, you’ll spend $500 and the company will cover the remaining $2,500. For a total loss, your insurance company will provide the amount for the car's value.

3. Weigh your options. Before turning in a claim, ask how the accident will affect your rates, O’Connor says. Say your vehicle has $700 worth of damage and your deductible is $500. Filing a claim will result in $200 in coverage. But if that claim causes a $100 increase to your premiums each year for the next several years, it may be to your advantage – at least in terms of costs – not to file.

4. Consider rental car reimbursement. If you have collision and comprehensive coverage, you can add rental car reimbursement to your policy, says Mark Madeja, insurance sales manager at AAA South Dakota.This will help cover the costs of renting a car to drive while your car is being fixed.

Avoiding a deer-car collision

To steer clear of deer while on the road, keep these three tips in mind.

1.Be alert. In areas with deer crossing signs, use extra caution, advises Nick McCummings, manager of Harrington Insurance Agency’s office in Brockton, Mass. “Don’t get distracted with the radio, cellphone or GPS when driving in such an area,” he says.

2. Stay in your lane. The majority of injuries and deaths in deer-car collisions happen when someone swerves to avoid a deer and hits something else or moves into another lane, Conarton says. If you see a deer, keep your hands steady on the wheel and slow down.

3. Drive defensively. A seat belt is the best defense for reducing your injury risk in a crash. In areas with a big population of deer, check the sides of the road continually and focus on getting to your destination safely.

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