One of five Berry students helping conduct a study of ways to prevent deer-vehicle collisions, Turner has spent several nights steering a car in the direction of roaming does and bucks.
“I’ve gotten nervous,” laughed the junior in animal studies. “It gets dark, you get tired and you can’t see well, and you start worrying if you’re going to hit something.”
The three-year study, a cooperative effort between Berry and University of Georgia graduate student Gino D’Angelo, is documenting the nocturnal movements of deer near the college’s roadways with a thermal imaging camera.
Funding is being provided by the Georgia Department of Transportation in hopes the research will disclose whether special roadside reflectors could deter deer from approaching vehicles.
Not only could the study’s findings help prevent the 50,000 deer-vehicle collisions in Georgia every year, but it also is an invaluable experience for the Berry students, said Professor George Gallagher, who is partnering with D’Angelo.
“Usually you don’t get these opportunities until you’re working on your master’s,” he said. “They learn a whole lot about how to do research and how to work as a team.”
And as Turner can attest, they’ve probably learned a bit about defensive driving.
For about four hours several nights a week, D’Angelo sets up in a tower or a plywood box with the thermal camera waiting for deer to approach the road. Once they do, he radios one of the undergraduates who drives the vehicle down the road.
“I tell them to drive right on through,” D’Angelo said. “Of course, if the deer doesn’t move they have to stop, and we record that the deer didn’t react.”
He is collecting data at two different points on the campus: across from the log cabins and near Frost Chapel on the Mountain Campus. Both of those areas have been marked with a homemade grid of three-foot wooden posts topped with water bottles of windshield wiper fluid.
The thermal imaging camera captures streaming video and stills based on temperature, a type of night vision often seen in movies. Because the windshield wiper fluid retains heat, the water bottles show up on the camera, which allows D’Angelo to make exact measurements of deer locations, he said.
“The camera is really fun,” Gallagher said. “The deer will stand out like deer-shaped light bulbs.”
Currently, the team is testing the deer to see how they react without the triangular-shaped reflectors, which D’Angelo hopes to start using in February.
The reflectors will be placed on either side of the road and are designed to reflect headlight beams perpendicularly across the street and into the area where deer might be wandering, Gallagher said.
Other components of the study, which are focused on understanding what exactly deer can hear and see, are being conducted in Athens.
“Animals don’t see or hear the same way that we do,” he said. “So the key to what we’re doing is studying the nerves and brain stem cells that will tell us what exactly the deer are sensing.”
Gallagher was first suggested as a potential partner by D’Angelo’s advisor, who saw Gallagher at a conference present his research on using fencing to prevent deer-vehicle collisions.
“It really made sense to work together,” D’Angelo said. “He had experience with the subject I was interested in, and of course, Berry has a plentiful supply of deer.”
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, deer account for about 75 percent of fatal animal-crash accidents. It reports about 1.5 million deer-vehicle crashes occur a year, costing about $1.1 billion in damages.
“There are more than 200 deaths a year because of these collisions,” D’Angelo said. “So I hope we might able to help lower those numbers.