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Keep your guard up: How grille guards mitigate deer strikes, other front-end collisions

May 19, 2023
When commercial vehicles and deer collide, the cost is high to both the animal and the fleet. Spec'ing grille guards might not prevent the deer from becoming roadkill, but can save fleets several thousand dollars.

This is Part Two of a two-part story. Read Part One here.

While a solid deer impact probably won’t total a heavy-duty truck, it could leave a mark on the hood, body, and grille leading to extended downtime—on average two days or more—and expensive repairs. Simply telling drivers to keep their eyes open for a crossing Bambi might not be enough. Shops can, however, mitigate the situation by spec’ing grille guards or even using devices to help drivers avoid the crash altogether.

To brace for deer crashes and other front-end damage, three years ago Pitt Ohio, a carrier that often performs linehaul operations at night through West Virginia, began spec’ing Ex-Guard grille guards on all new linehaul tractors and retrofitting the existing assets. They cost about $1,200 and it’s an expense that Taki Darakos, VP of maintenance at Pitt Ohio, gladly pays, as deer strikes on defenseless grilles can add up to more than $10,000 in repair parts and labor, as well as costs related to downtime (as discussed in Part One).

“If there is a deer guard on, typically we’ve found the truck keeps on going,” he said, adding because Pitt’s trucks are already red, the front end doesn’t look like “a horror film festival,” though the driver may be a bit shaken up from the jump scare.

The repair costs are far less as well.

“We’ve seen strikes where there’s no damage, and we’ve seen strikes with maybe $500 of damage—but it’s a pretty drastic reduction,” Darakos commented.

The extra level of protection isn’t just for big rigs. Ex-Guard also provides van guards for Ford Transit, Merecedes-Benz Sprinter, and Ram Promaster vans.

“Contrary to the name ‘deer guard’ that is applied to front-end guards, animal collisions make up less than 2% of reported collisions (according to FMCSA),” noted Nathan Holt, marketing manager at Ex-Guard. “They actually protect trucks from more fixed object collisions than animal collisions and prevent even the smallest collision from sidelining a truck or van.”

He also noted they take as little as 20 minutes to install and fold down for hood access using a single-hand release or dual cam latch system.

Holt said because one in nine trucks experience a collision each year, the ROI for a grille guard is about 18 months.

“To calculate an ROI, include lost revenue from truck downtime and the 4+ weeks wait for replacement parts,” he said. “Also, most individual front-end parts cost more than an Ex-Guard.”

Fontaine Modification has found deer guards have grown in popularity in the medium-duty segment. The upfitter offers a new grille guard for Chevrolet Silverado trucks from Luverne, a manufacturer of accessories for light- and medium-duty pickups and vans. According to Jennifer Sweet, Fontaine Modification’s VP of work truck sales and business development, only 2 out of 30 Silverado customers chose not to spec the guard.

“From a return-on-investment standpoint, it’s a no-brainer to say, ‘I’d rather spend $1,100 upfront than $10,000 and two months of downtime due to deer damage,’” Sweet said, adding that the downtime cost would be an additional $3,000 depending on the truck’s job. “And it doesn’t necessarily have to just be a deer [collision], because they protect from anything.”

Fontaine assisted Luverne with the Silverado grille guard, which uses a magnetic system and tilts, making access under the hood and any preventive maintenance easier. The toe hook area can also be accessed. The total install time takes about 30 minutes.

“It may not totally negate all problems [of hitting a deer], but it’s gonna take most blunt force without damage, and you’re not gonna be stuck with a huge bill,” said Zach Walls, the Fontaine Modification sales engineer who worked on the project.

Walls pointed out that upfitters and dealers should know which grille guard will not interfere with front-end collision mitigation, but the customer should always ask what components a grille guard could interfere with.

“Grille guards are great for deer hits or minor collisions,” agreed Tim Matheny, president of Matheny Motor Truck Company, a dealership network based in Parkersburg, West Virginia, which “sees quite a few deer hits.”

Matheny said downtime for severe hits can reach a couple of weeks, with a bill of $12,000 for parts and $5,000 for labor.

He suggested that on some occasions, though, the grille guard may not prevent at least some moderate repair work.

“If the deer strikes the center of the grille, that can still create a good amount of damage,” he said.

High-tech mitigation

The best way to avoid the mess and downtime is to simply not hit the deer, which is easier said than done.

There are also various gadgets that claim to work, such as the Night Owl Plus thermal camera from Speedir. The company says the infrared camera detects heat signatures up to 3,000 ft. beyond the scope of the headlight beams and provides an audible warning up to 400 ft. away. The ADAS technology costs about $1,900.

Deer whistles, which mount to the grille and claim to make a noise to scare deer away, are a far cheaper option. A 2018 research paper from Iowa State University questioned their efficacy, though.

Driver training is likely a better investment than any bells or whistles. Derrick mentioned that along with the physical protection, Pitt Ohio’s safety department will remind drivers about deer season during monthly meetings.

According to the Ohio Department of Insurance, a few tips to tell drivers for rutting season include scanning the road ahead for deer and employing high beams when no other vehicles are present. Also, avoid swerving if a crash is unavoidable, as this could create a more dangerous situation. A driver who swerves out of the way of the deer and hits something else could be held liable.

That shows there’s really no avoiding the inevitable sometimes. But as long as fleets prepare for the coming deer season now (remember, it’s October and November) with a mix of driver training, solid protection, and sound repair practices, you’ll make sure one scary moment won’t turn into weeks of headaches and thousands of dollars.

About the Author

John Hitch | Editor-in-chief, Fleet Maintenance

John Hitch is the editor-in-chief of Fleet Maintenance, where his mission is to provide maintenance management and technicians with the the latest information on the tools and strategies to keep their fleets' commercial vehicles moving.

He is based out of Cleveland, Ohio, and has worked in the B2B journalism space for more than a decade.

Hitch was previously senior editor for FleetOwner, and covers everything related to trucking and commercial vehicle equipment, including breaking news, the latest trends and best practices. He previously wrote about manufacturing and advanced technology for IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest.

Prior to that he was editor for Kent State University's student magazine, The Burr, and a freelancer for Cleveland Magazine. He is an award-winning journalist and former sonar technician, where he served honorably aboard the fast-attack submarine USS Oklahoma City (SSN-723).

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