Safety around farm vehicles a two-way street

posted July 10, 2017 10:35 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Jim Massey, Editor |

Each spring and fall, officials from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation send out news releases urging motorists to watch out for farm vehicles as they travel around the state. 

That is good advice, since too often motor vehicle vs. farm equipment crashes result in serious injuries or deaths on Wisconsin highways. According to the DOT, 16 people have been killed and 517 injured over the past five years in crashes involving agricultural equipment in Wisconsin. 

Drivers are advised to slow down immediately whenever they see a fluorescent orange slow-moving-vehicle emblem on the rear of a tractor or other piece of equipment. They should stay alert and focused when passing a slow-moving agricultural vehicle in an area where passing is legal.

It is important to remember that a recent change in Wisconsin law makes it illegal for motorists to pass slow-moving agricultural equipment in a no-passing zone.

While slowing down and being careful around agricultural equipment is good advice for motorists, agricultural equipment operators must also be considerate of the motorists they are sharing the road with.

During a recent drive on a busy southern Wisconsin county road, a tractor pulling a manure tanker backed up traffic for 15 minutes while moving slowly from Point A to Point B. The road was relatively crooked and had virtually no passing zones, and where passing was allowed, oncoming traffic made passing impossible. The line of backed up traffic kept getting longer and longer.

It’s legal to drive farm machinery on public roads and it’s often the only way farmers can get from field to field. While the machinery drivers are relying on motorists to exhibit courtesy and caution, that can go both ways.

In the case of the tractor and manure spreader, there were multiple opportunities where the machinery operator could have pulled into an intersecting driveway to safely let the long line of motorists pass. That didn’t happen, and it undoubtedly left many motorists angry and frustrated.

Sometimes, common courtesy can go a long way.

In many cases, inattentive motorists are to blame when agricultural equipment and motor vehicles collide. The motorist might be traveling at 55 miles an hour and come up behind a haybine that is going 15. The combination of slow traveling farm equipment and faster motor vehicles means the time before the two meet can be seconds. Add in any driver distraction — talking on a cellphone, being tired or talking to a passenger — and stopping without a crash is almost impossible.  

There are some cases where crashes could be avoided if the machinery operator made a special point of being considerate and truly sharing the road with motorists. Sharing the road doesn’t necessarily mean hogging the road.

As farms have gotten larger, so has the equipment it takes to haul manure, cut and rake hay, and plant and harvest field crops. The larger equipment has definitely caused more dangerous situations, as it’s harder for motorists to see around the equipment if they attempt to pass and the equipment spreads out wider and longer on the road.

Farm equipment operators should look at the big picture when sharing the road with their urban neighbors.

If farmers are courteous when operating their equipment on the roadways, motorists are likely to be more tolerant of the road-sharing farm equipment in future encounters. There are situations where farmers simply can’t move over to let someone pass, and motorists will be more understanding if they see the equipment pull over when it is safe and appropriate.

Farmers should also consider that everyone helps pay for the construction and maintenance of roads, and studies have shown that farm equipment tends to cause more damage to those roads than other vehicles. Disgruntled motorists who have had one too many negative encounters with farm equipment might be more likely to push local officials to make farmers pay a larger share of road maintenance costs. Keeping on good terms with the people who pay the bills is not only common courtesy, but it can also be a way to keep the peace.

There is no doubt that Wisconsin’s roads are busier in the summer, when tourists are enjoying all this beautiful state has to offer and farmers are busy harvesting their crops. 

“Farmers and the public alike need to share the roadway,” Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel recently said in a news release. “Machinery operators have to be aware of the speed of traffic and traffic must slow down for farm vehicles that tend to be slow moving. Please stay safe.” 

To that, we say amen.

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