Claims of Montana's deer-collision risk may be overstated

An insurance company claims that drivers are at higher risk of hitting a deer in Montana than in other states. But Montana might not deserve the ranking.

State Farm Insurance released its annual calculation that seems to show that Montana ranks second in the nation as far as a driver's likelihood of hitting a deer, elk or moose. Montanans are supposed to have a 1-in-58 chance of hitting an animal while West Virginia takes top honors with a 1-in-41 chance, and Pennsylvania comes in third. Not surprisingly, Hawaii comes in last.

But since the company’s purpose is to sell car insurance, a smart consumer might give those calculations another look. Data can show certain trends that may not be so when put in the proper context.

State Farm says it calculates the chances of hitting a deer, elk or moose by taking the number of State Farm insurance claims between July 1 and June 30, using that to estimate the total claims in a state, and dividing those claims by the number of drivers registered in the state.

Already, red flags go up because Montanans use at least six major companies for car insurance, including Geico or Farmers Union, so any estimate of the total number of claims is verging on rough guesswork. But let’s see what the numbers are.

Montana has about 768,700 registered drivers in 2016, according to the Federal Highway Administration. That’s pretty close to the number of drivers in the San Francisco area, but the two groups don’t drive the same at all. Many in San Francisco never leave the city so they never hit a deer whereas most Montanans drive out of town at least occasionally. So per capita comparisons across states are flawed.

State Farm then estimated 13,316 claims were filed in Montana from July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016, but does this estimate jibe with reality?

The Montana Department of Transportation reported that cars hit 7,051 animals in 2012 - 4,754 whitetail deer, 1,977 mule deer, 220 elk, 72 antelope and 28 moose. After 2012, people were allowed to collect roadkill so 2012 is the best gauge for animal collisions.

Granted, the DOT numbers reflect only dead animals found along the road, so it wouldn’t include collisions where animals were able to walk away. But could such collisions account for almost double the number of claims?

Since State Farm tallies comprehensive and collision claims, so instead of looking at dead animals, let’s look at car crashes reported to the DOT. The number of crashes with wild animals between 2005 and 2014 oscillated between 1,870 and 2,120 a year with no increasing trend. Based upon that, Montanans had a 1-in-366 chance of being in a crash with a deer or elk in 2014.

However, crash statistics – which represent situations where law enforcement was on-scene - are going to be only a portion of the total annual number of claims. Some people drive away after hitting an animal without calling for help. But 13,316 claims is quite a bit more than 2,100, and since the overall trend in crashes hasn’t increased, it is unlikely that the total number of collisions would have increased independently.

But State Farm claimed the risk jumped 19 percent in Montana between 2014 and 2015 and 9 percent between 2015 and 2016.

This isn’t to say Montanans don’t have a fair chance of hitting a deer or elk and the State Farm calculations probably aren't too far off. Almost every resident knows someone who has hit one, due to a number of factors: Montanans tend to drive farther distances; 80 mph speed limits on highways; and healthy wildlife populations.

But a lot of Montanans know how to avoid hitting animals, such as avoiding trips during dusk and dawn, and slowing down or being more watchful while driving at night. Locals know the places where deer are more likely to be. So one could argue the number of claims in Montana should be lower.

But there is one other factor that could produce more claims and artificially raise the State Farm odds: tourists. Since 2013, about 11 million tourists have traveled through Montana each year, according to the University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research. Many who drive either their own cars or rental vehicles tend not to be used to driving where they could run into wildlife, so high speeds and inattentiveness tend to be factors. Tourists hit many animals that cross the roads in and around Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, especially State Highway 89 leading into Gardiner. A high proportion of roadkill is found on I-90 and State Highway 93 between Hamilton and Kalispell.

If out-of-state drivers are responsible for, say, 2,000 of Montana’s estimated 13,316 claims, then State Farm’s equation using the number of registered Montana drivers doesn’t work.

But it may sell insurance.