Jury still out on deer detection systems

Allen Line reflectors, LaCloche flashers under scrutiny

SUDBURY—Tales of deer standing beside unblinking detection lights have become part of local folklore for those travelling on and off of Manitoulin via the Little Current swing bridge since the system was installed along Highway 6 north of the town. The Expositor contacted Gordon Rennie, Regional Issues and Media Advisor with the Ministry of Transportation, Northeastern Region, to ask about the status of the system, whether it appears to be working and what causes the lights to flash when the road is clear and not flash when deer are standing beside the lights and signs. Mr. Rennie replied in detail.

“Since 2006, the Ministry of Transportation has actively explored new techniques to reduce wildlife/vehicle collisions,” he noted. “During this time, several pilot projects were initiated to trial different wildlife collision mitigation methods. Trial projects included wildlife exclusion fencing, deer deterrent reflectors, enhanced warning signage, driver education campaigns, roadside salt reduction and wildlife detection systems.”

In reply to concerns expressed by drivers who report seeing deer standing beside un-flashing lights, Mr. Rennie noted that the system is not meant to replace driver vigilance. “The wildlife detection system is meant to be an additional warning device to alert motorists of a potential hazard,” he noted. “The primary warning device is the yellow wildlife warning signs that identify to motorists they are entering an area where there has been a high incidence of wildlife/vehicle collisions. Detection systems are not intended to replace the need for safe driving practices and watching for wildlife.”

[box float=”left”][polldaddy poll=7134161][/box]So how will the ministry know if the system is working? “The success of the system will depend on whether it reduces wildlife/vehicle collisions,” replied Mr. Rennie. “To date the results have been very positive with the first system, which was installed on Highway 17 in 2009. A preliminary analysis shows that in the five years preceding the system’s installation there were 11 reported collisions within the 1.5 kilometre limits of the system. In the initial two years following installation there has been one reported collision. While these initial results are positive, a full five-year pre- and post-installation comparison is needed to determine the system’s effectiveness. A similar comparison will be done for the system on Highway 6.”

But when it comes to the deer standing beside the lights or the lights flashing with no deer in sight, the surmised answers seem to mine a common sense vein.

“Since the trial projects began in November of 2009 several challenges have been identified,” noted Mr. Rennie. “One challenge is the false triggers that can be caused by vegetation and/or smaller animals. The key is to find the right balance with the sensitivity. In order to achieve the certainty that all large animals will be detected, some false triggers will occur. Other challenges to date include maintenance of vegetation, theft of equipment, and wearing out of electrical components.”

The reason for the pilot project is, in fact, to work out a lot of these details and hopefully reduce the number of collisions. Unfortunately, that can lead to some negative perceptions of the deer detection system in the eyes of public.

“In addition to false triggers, there are several other scenarios that can lead to negative public perception of the system’s effectiveness,” noted Mr. Rennie. “For example, the warning lights will only flash for a period of three minutes. In the instance where an animal stands on the highway platform for longer than three minutes, they would be undetected by the system and the lights would no longer be flashing. The system only detects animals in the right-of-way, in order to not be triggered by passing vehicles. Another scenario would be if a deer runs straight across the highway very quickly. In this scenario the lights would remain flashing for three minutes, even though the animal could now be out of sight.”

The deer detection system does have a number of potentially positive impacts. “Another measure used to help determine the effectiveness was a speed reduction study,” said Mr. Rennie. “(That study) showed there was a reduction in vehicle speeds when the system was flashing. This will need to be monitored over time to ensure the flashing warning lights aren’t being ignored.”

Mr. Rennie also commented on the location of the system, pointing out that its decision was based on the location of reported collisions. “The entire length of Highway 6 from South Baymouth to Espanola has a very high incidence of wildlife vehicle collisions, primarily with deer,” he said. “The 3.5 kilometre section where the system was installed has experienced 20 reported wildlife/vehicle collisions in the last 10 years. Wildlife collisions in this area account for 70 percent of reported collisions, which is much higher than the provincial average.”

The tradeoff between effective placement of the detectors and the physical limitations of the site resulted in the current location being chosen. “The first three kilometres immediately north of the Little Current swing bridge have experienced more collisions in recent years,” admitted Mr. Rennie, “but is less suited to installation of a detection system as there are more entrances and obstructions for the sensors.”

A deer deterrent system being tested at the other end of the Island on Highway 540, meanwhile, is not being expanded although the reflectors will continue to be monitored. The deer reflectors were put in place along a 1.5 kilometre stretch of Highway 540 as part of a five-year pilot project in 2007. Mr. Rennie explained that there were 13 reported collisions along that stretch of highway during the five-year period preceding the installation of the deer reflectors. Although possible confounding variables had not yet been factored out of the results, preliminary data suggested that during the first four years of the deer reflector study, animal-car collisions had actually increased marginally.

“Based on the results, we have no plans to install more reflectors,” said Mr. Rennie.

As for the deer detectors on Highway 6 leading to and from the Island, according to Mr. Rennie, the MTO intends to assess the data collected from the system, primarily the impact the system has on the number of collisions reported in the area covered by the detectors, and that may lead to a more comprehensive system being put in place in the province in the future, but one thing remains abundantly clear—there is no substitute for vigilance.

Mr. Rennie said that motorists should be cautious no matter what the status of the wildlife detection lights. “Look out for wildlife both inside and outside the wildlife detection system area,” he cautioned, adding that “the ministry appreciates receiving motorist feedback.”

Michael Erskine