According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, between 2011 and 2018 there were more than 1.300 crashes between motorists and farm equipment. Those crashes resulted in more than 670 injuries and nearly 30 deaths.
Cheryl Skjolaas is the Agricultural Safety and Health Specialist at UW-Extension. As the outreach specialist in ag health and safety, she reminds farmers that although harvest is a busy season, it is an important time to buckle down when it comes to safety.
“Farmers and motorists have a tendency to fall into the same bad habits,” Skjolaas said. “As a farmer operating large pieces of equipment, you have a requirement to yield, stop and follow the legal laws for operating on the road.”
While attentiveness is always necessary when operating implements of husbandry, there are several scenarios farmers should pay close attention to as they take to the roads this fall.
It has been illegal to pass farm equipment in a no passing zone, regardless of the equipment’s speed, since 2014. Motorists are to wait until they have entered a legal passing zone to pass equipment once it has been deemed safe to do so.
It is important for farmers to be equally mindful of no passing zones. Farmers should never wave a driver to pass them; this can create extra confusion for the motorists and potential hazards for the farmer operating the equipment. Farmers should only pull over in a no passing zone to allow vehicles to pass if the road shoulder width and condition allow the machinery to completely move out of the lane of traffic.
Farmers operating wide equipment have a legal obligation to yield the opposite lane to any oncoming motorists to not disrupt normal traffic flow.
“It is not the motorist’s responsibility to get over for you,” Skjolaas said. “Always be on the lookout for what is coming and remember to share the road.”
When making a left-hand turn, clear communication from the farmer to the motorist and attentiveness by both parties are key to proper safety. Farm equipment commonly has two flashing amber or yellow lights located on the cab or tire fenders when in operation on the road. In the event a farmer is operating a tractor or equipment that is not equipped with signals, hand signals should be used to indicate the direction in which the operator is turning.
Proper lighting and signaling becomes especially valuable during low-visibility situations.
“When we get into those low-visibility conditions of fall – foggy mornings, early dusks, late dawns – your lighting and markings are especially needed on all sides,” Skjolaas said.
Passing at a Controlled Intersection
Farm equipment is much heavier than a normal passenger vehicle and, therefore, requires a greater breaking distance. According to the National Ag Safety Database, if a motorist is driving 55 mph and approaches a tractor driving 15 mph, it only takes five seconds to close a gap the length of a football field.
Even if a motorist is able to legally pass a large piece of farm equipment within a very short distance of a controlled intersection, the action itself has a dramatic impact on the reaction time and braking distance for the farm equipment operator. The same is true for divided highways.
“It is important to recognize the slowness of ag equipment versus the speed of a motor vehicle. If you are crossing a divided highway, let the vehicles pass until you are certain it is safe to proceed and cross,” Skjolaas said.
Safety on the road begins at home. Avoiding preventable accidents begins by ensuring tractors and other pieces of equipment are following the lighting and marking regulations, which have been in effect since November 2015. This includes proper lighting and extremity markings using retroreflective materials in addition to standard slow-moving vehicle signage. The SMV emblem is required on farm equipment that usually travels at a speed less than 25 mph. It is important not to overlook extremity markings, so motorists have a better judgement of an equipment’s width in low-light situation.
“Even if the equipment you are operating isn’t considered wide, you can still upgrade your lighting and marking,” Skjolaas said.
It is imperative to be cognizant of an equipment’s lights, tape and SMV emblem visibility, even if a farmer knows they are properly placed. If an SMV emblem is faded, it should be replaced with a more reflective model. Reflective marking tape, lights and SMV emblems must also be kept clean and free from debris.
Skjolaas also recommends good general maintenance on equipment. Ensuring tires are in good shape and hitches are properly secured can make the difference between a safe trip and an unfortunate circumstance.
“The same rush that leads to mishaps in the field also can happen on the roadway,” Skjolaas said. “You need to make sure you are mentally prepared for the trip, even if it is a short distance.”
Operator awareness is also a key to a successful trip down the road. Ensure that all equipment operators on the farm are well-instructed, understand the rules of the road and how to respond if a crash occurs. Skjolaas suggests taking the time to plan routes and identify areas that may pose a high risk while operating.
“It is important to plan your route and know what your roadside obstacles are. Even if you are only going from farm ‘A’ to farm ‘B,’ take the time to check that route for any obstacles or limitations,” Skjolaas said.
Finally, Skjolaas reminds farmers to review all the permits required in their area.
“Some of this equipment is overweight or oversized,” Skjolaas said. “It is important to know what roads you will be traveling on and what permits are required for overweight and oversized vehicles.”
Attentiveness is a constant requirement on the road but being prepared and practicing caution during peak times are vital to a successful harvest. At the end of a long, hard workday, everyone wants to return home safely. Farmers and motorists have an equal responsibility to ensure roadways remain safe.
Cassie Sonnentag serves as the District 4 Coordinator for Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation. She works with members in Eau Claire, Buffalo, Trempealeau, Monroe, Monroe and La Crosse counties. Cassie enjoys writing about agricultural topics and photography.