The Four Corners region (where Utah/Colorado/New Mexico/Arizona meet) is beautiful in the fall and the southwest quadrant of Colorado especially so with moderate temperatures and all the river drainages producing forests of brilliant colored aspens, oak, willows and cottonwoods. Taking a break from the Phoenix 100-plus heat, I had been visiting family and sightseeing, and part of our evening conversations always included what wildlife we had seen that day on our hikes or drives. In the verdant valleys and canyons, and even in irrigated residential and rural areas, often mixed in with livestock, it was common to see deer just about everywhere along with ravens, hawks and squirrels, an occasional fox or coyote, and even a flock or two of wild turkeys. But in the rockier, less lush desert landscapes as the sun warmed the days to the south and west, critters were nowhere to be seen among the cactus. Or so I thought…
I was on the home stretch, my last scenic leg of the nine-day, 1650-mile trip that would take me into the vast Navajo Nation and through the breathtaking Monument Valley, on to Flagstaff and eventually back home to Phoenix. As I skirted the southern boundary of the magnificent Bears Ears National Monument the road turned south and the red rocks and distant mesas came into view.
Insurance statistics tell us that accidents are more likely to happen closer to home or toward the end of driving trips [citation/link?] and, as a professional driving instructor, I’m in the habit of practicing a heightened vigilance when in environments unusual to me. I also long ago gave up multi-tasking while driving (distractions causing a huge percentage of crashes) [https://www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/distracted-driving] so before I even put the car in gear I’m usually set with all the mirror adjustments, controls, media, etc., ready to drive at attention.
Having just turned onto a different desert highway among the red rocks, I was settling in for a long day on the road with very light traffic. Just as I began to move into my “long haul” driving mindset, up pops a fresh 65 mph speed limit sign so I took a few seconds to concentrate on resetting the cruise control and I could be on my way for a steady few hours.
As I accelerated to 65 on the two-lane road I was reflecting on the contrast of scenery from the colorful lushness of SW Colorado to the stark beauty of these red rocks with almost no foliage or wildlife. Wow, what a difference! Just when I lifted my foot to let the cruise control take over, off in my left peripheral I noticed a blur of something coming over the guardrail onto the roadway. Now here is where time stood still; the next 3-4 seconds seemed to take about five minutes to happen.
First I recognized that a deer had run onto the roadway so naturally I moved my right foot over to slam on the brakes. At 65 miles an hour! Now, in my career I have taught hundreds of teens and their parents how to execute panic stops but it has usually been at about 25-30 mph, and on a closed course with no traffic. So while I’m getting to the brake pedal other thoughts are occurring, like dang, that’s a buck! Not only a buck but a very healthy-looking four-pointer. Out here in the middle of nowhere! In the slice of a second it took my foot to get to the brake he took a short leap and was in the middle of my lane about 60 feet away. Then I thought, if he keeps going I won’t have to do the full-on panic stop. My next flash was uh-oh, where’s his doe? There’s usually a pair, so where is she? At that very instant she came hauling over the guardrail following her mate. She was only about 20 feet behind him now but he hadn’t moved so I had to commit right then and there to execute the best, quickest panic stop I’ve ever done or I was going to wipe them both out and wreck the car in the process.
While all this is going on and I’m planning my move I had already factored in that I could see the road clearly ahead for about a quarter-mile and that it had guardrail on both sides with no traffic oncoming or behind; not another car in sight. I knew that part of the ABS (anti-lock braking system) technology, certainly a crucial part, is that it allows you to steer the car while the brakes are fully engaged. Well, that’s exactly what I needed if I was going to avoid hitting Mr. and Mrs. Deer because now, even with my speed slightly reduced to over 50 mph, I doubted I could get the car stopped before I reached them.
Being a driving instructor I regularly coach many points of visual awareness and constantly assessing your “out” escape route in traffic is one of them. So seeing that there was no oncoming traffic I had my out; just stand on those brakes with all my weight as hard as I could and, while stopping, steer gradually to the left, enough to avoid the two deer.
The sudden noise of the car stopping so near them must have spooked them to leap over the right guardrail; they were gone in two bounds. As I came to a complete stop halfway across the middle line my right eye caught a pair of furry tails dropping through the rocks into the ravine below.
Whew! No harm, no foul, but a lot happened in a few seconds. I believe time slowed down for me because my instincts from years of practice and coaching took over; I didn’t have to think of what to do. I firmly believe that our instincts are informed by a specific experience and the list of course components taught at DriverMojo include the ones I applied to avoid the deer pair. The Eyes Up Visual Technique of looking further down the road informed me that I was clear for at least a quarter mile in case I had to use the left lane. The (every 10-15 seconds) Mirror Check told me I had nobody immediately behind me or to either side so I could safely stop in a hurry. My knowledge of ABS Braking informed me that I could safely steer the car to the left while stopping, so I was likely to miss the deer. And, worse case, the guardrail on both sides would probably keep me out of the ravine should I get too far to either side.
Based on dozens of emotional testimonial letters over the years from grateful family members of loved ones we’ve trained having narrowly missed crashing because they knew what to do in a given situation, I cannot recommend strongly enough the importance of attending a formal safe driving program and to practice the techniques afterward. If you drive for a company or feel that your company can benefit from professional safe driver training, please reach out to me at DriverMojo.
Ken Baca is a 35-year veteran of national corporate automotive events and driver training programs and senior instructor with DriverMojo.