I never thought much about the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s ‘Zero in Wisconsin’ campaign, until now. Recent accidents involving tractors, and a personal incident from five years ago, have me taking our state’s campaign to reduce traffic fatalities to heart.
For the past two years, I have spent much of my time working on Wisconsin’s Implements of Husbandry (IOH) law in Wisconsin. It’s been tiring and rewarding. This law is so comprehensive that a third version is in the works to make some very detailed and technical changes so we get it right for farmers and agribusinesses. The rewarding part is that I’ve been able to travel the state and talk to farmers, local elected officials, law enforcement and the general public about the law. This includes explaining the new lighting and marking safety provisions for farm implements that went into effect last November.
I have to admit, the reception has been mixed. Some farmers say these changes are reasonable considering the size of some farm equipment and the public’s inexperience sharing the road with large equipment. I also have been told that new lighting and marking requirements are a burden and the public just needs to pay more attention while driving. I think both arguments are correct.
Last October a woman was killed when the driver of her car tried to pass a tractor pulling a corn picker and gravity box while it was making a left-hand turn. The car’s driver and the farmer were severely injured. In January, similar incidents in Lafayette and Columbia counties led to two farm tractor driver fatalities when semi-tractor and trailers crashed into the rear of both tractors. Preliminary reports suggest the farm tractor in the Columbia County crash met legal lighting and marking requirements, while the Lafayette County crash is still under investigation.
While I appreciate the ‘Zero in Wisconsin’ campaign’s worthy and lofty goal, I don’t think we’ll ever get there.
Call me cynically pragmatic. According to the DOT’s website, an average of 570 people died annually on our roads from 2008 to 2012. The number for 2015 was 560 deaths. I echo their call to stay within the speed limits, stay sober behind the wheel, buckle up and stay off the phone (especially texting) to eliminate preventable deaths, but changing or regulating human behavior is a difficult, and often times, monumental task.
However, my cynicism will not stop me from doing my part to educate farmers on the necessary steps to legally light and mark their IOH equipment. When promoting they go beyond what’s required, I like to tell them to “Light ‘em up like a Christmas tree.”
Are the new requirements a burden for farmers? It depends. What’s the burden to family and friends when you’re injured or die in an accident because your equipment had minimal or no lighting and marking? Look, I dread (even hate) the idea of telling farmers how to do their job. Still, there are so many variables on the road that place farmers in danger. The lighting and marking law is intended to minimize those variables at minimal cost to farmers.
Don’t get me wrong, the burden doesn’t just rest with farmers. It is equally incumbent upon the general driving public to be courteous and cautious while on Wisconsin roads.
Five years ago, a few days before the birth of my daughter, my next-door neighbor was driving a small tractor on a county road just beyond his driveway. A speeding teenage driver came around the road’s bend and struck my neighbor, sending his body airborne into a utility pole. My neighbor was fortunate to live, but a traumatic brain injury has kept him incapacitated in a wheelchair, changing his life forever. There are too many stories in rural Wisconsin like this where others have not been as fortunate.
His story and the rash of recent farm fatalities have helped put my last two years working on the IOH law into perspective. I can’t prevent accidents from happening and I don’t know if we’ll ever achieve ‘Zero in Wisconsin,’ but my many conversations with farmers across the state tell me we’re on the right track.
Rob Richard is the WFBF’s Senior Director of Governmental Relations. Rob is the Wisconsin Farm Bureau’s point person for legislation taking place at the State Capitol in Madison.