Pat Dupler likes to admire the wild deer in the East Bay hills, but she also has learned to fear them as potential unguided missiles that blast into the paths of moving cars.

Dupler has collided three times with deer at night — twice in Contra Costa County and once in the Sierra foothills. The collisions did not injure her, but rattled her and caused several thousands of dollars in car damage.

"I'm a careful driver," said Dupler, a retired Martinez nurse who drives a Volvo sedan. "I had no time to avoid these accidents. Once, I didn't even see the animal until it hit my side window and its face pushed against my windshield. It was horrible."

Bambi, a kindly friend in the forest, can become the nightmare of the highway in the East Bay and other places in deer country.

Nationally, deer collisions with cars annually cause some $1.1 billion in vehicle damage, kill 150 people and injure 29,000 others, according to estimates by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The collision rate is going up as more homes are built in woody deer habitat, experts say collision risks escalate during the deer rutting season, which is in the late fall and early winter.

In the East Bay, though, the risk is year-round. Unlike Sierra deer, which migrate seasonally along predictable routes, East Bay deer stay near home, crossing local roads often to feed on suburban landscape foliage and drink from ponds and pools.

Municipal shooting bans protect deer from hunters in the suburbs. "You have lots of deer in these suburban areas, and you can't tell where the deer are going to cross," said Craig Stowers, deer program manager for the California Department of Fish and Game, "so you get a lot of carcasses on the side of the road."

The size of deer, which can weigh 160 pounds or more, makes them the most damaging animal on the road to people and cars.

"More squirrels get run over, but they are squished under tires. They don't have the impact of deer," said Susan Heckly, rehabilitation director at the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut creek.

"Deer live in our suburban habitat but don't see cars as predators. They go out at night and don't know what to do when this big metal thing comes toward them."

California rated 26th of 50 states for deer collision claims last year, trailing states with larger deer herds, according to a survey of State Farm Insurance customers.

But the toll in California is still significant, police accident records show.

Vehicle collisions with animals in California killed five people, injured431 others and damaged 15,750 vehicles between 1996 and 2005, according to records compiled by the California Highway Patrol.

In Contra Costa and Alameda counties combined, animal collisions killed three people, injured 166 others, and damaged 793 vehicles between 1996 and 2005, according to the CHP.

CHP and police records do not distinguish between accidents involving deer and other animals, such as cows and horses. But studies in several states have concluded that deer are involved in more than 85 percent of car crashes with animals.

In Contra Costa County, deer regularly collide with cars, while cows or horses occasionally do, said Dan Barrett, deputy director of the county's Animal Services Department.

Livestock is usually fenced in. Last year Contra Costa animal services officers scooped up 1,355 deer carcasses. The county and local police euthanized 87 others. Most were likely victims of car crashes, Barrett said.

"We find many of them by the road with signs of trauma from an accident," he said. Barrett and other animal experts agree that many car collisions with deer are not reported. Motorists don't want to go to the trouble, or fear repercussions if they contact police or insurers.

Deer also escape blame for some accidents they trigger. When drivers swerve and crash to avoid them, the accident is not counted as a deer collision, authorities say.

Lafayette police Chief Mike Fisher said he knows of two fatal single-car crashes in his town in which investigators suspected that the drivers might have veered off the road to avoid deer. The drivers died, and there were no passengers to question.

"People were guessing a deer," Fisher said. "It was hard to explain why they (the drivers) turned off the road." Several East Bay residents who crashed into deer told the MediaNews they had no time to avoid the collisions, which caused up to thousands of dollars in damage per vehicle.

The national average car insurance claim for a deer collision is $2,800. A doe ran into Mike Pingatore's SUV earlier this month as he drove on Walnut Boulevard in southern Walnut Creek.

"The deer was looking right at me, then it runs into me," Pignatore said. The deer ran away, and Pignatore had to replace his side-view mirror. Stanley Klosinki of Concord hit a deer on Interstate 680 in Sunol one night four years ago.

"I just barely had time to touch the brake pedal before striking the third deer in line," Klosinki wrote in an e-mail.

Safety and wildlife experts have no easy solutions to prevent crashes between cars and deer. Giving birth control chemicals to deer is expensive and difficult.

In the 1990s, the East Bay Regional Park District determined in a pilot project that it cost $2,000 to $3,000 annually to give birth control chemicals to each doe at a Fremont park.

Giving the chemicals to a free-ranging herd would not only be costly but maybe impossible, park officials said.

Deer warnings signs are often ignored. Clearing vegetation along roads can deter deer from browsing there, but it requires continual upkeep, said Stowers.

the state deer program manager. Tunnels under roads can be effective, but they are expensive, he added.

Some environmental experts want more mapping of deer travel routes so roads and highways can be built with wildlife tunnels or bridges.

The passageways, however, must be linked to adequate open spaces for the deer to use once they cross the road, said Alison Berry, director of the University of California, Davis, road ecology center.

Tall fences can keep deer off roads, experts say, but are expensive and not practical everywhere. "There is no fence in my mind," said Fisher, the Lafayette police chief, "that can keep deer from roaming in this city."

Contact reporter Denis Cuff at (925) 943-8267 or dcuff@cctimes.com