A deadly harvest
Three family members died last week when the SUV they were traveling in collided with a John Deere combine as it was crossing a county highway at night.
As investigators from the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department piece together the events of the fateful night of Nov. 3 that claimed the lives of driver Brian J. Schantz, 57, of Cottage Grove and his passengers Ildred G. Schantz, 90, of Cottage Grove and Alan I. Schantz, 60, of Honolulu, Hawaii, law enforcement officers are using the tragedy to send a message to both farm machinery operators and motorists alike to use extreme caution during harvest season.
Having grown up in the farming community, Kewaunee County Sheriff Matt Joski knows all too well the sense of urgency that comes with both planting and harvesting. However, no rushing on the part of farmers or impatience or inattentiveness on the part of a motor vehicle operator is worth the cost of a tragedy.
"I understand there's this sense of urgency, especially if bad weather is coming or you're trying to get somewhere quick, but there also needs to be a sense of safety and awareness," Joski said.
Dawn to dusk
According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, in the last two years there were 345 Wisconsin traffic crashes involving farm machines. These crashes caused 171 injuries and three fatalities. Several of the crashes were recorded during the month of October.
Already two weeks behind schedule due to a late planting season, farmers are working from dawn to dusk trying to get the crops in before the snow flies. This means working well after sundown.
Joski says farmers and agricultural haulers need to be aware of the latest laws regarding Implements of Husbandry and lighting.
"You have to be sure your equipment is property lit, especially if you're going to be out operating during evening hours," he said.
In the Jefferson County crash, the SUV driven by Brian Schantz slammed into the corn head of the combine operated by Donna J. Martin of Waterloo. Martin wasn't injured in the crash.
"A grain head on a combine needs to have some type of reflective material or some lighting to indicate the actual extent of the width," Joske said. "Just because the combine may be lit, if you have a 16-foot head on the front of it, you need to make sure some efforts are made to make that thing visible. Otherwise a vehicle trying to navigate around it may see lighting on the piece of equipment itself, but if that protruding piece isn't property marked or lit, it's completely invisible to the driver as they're trying to pass or come up from behind."
Combine operators traveling several miles to get to another field are encouraged to transport the head separately on a header trailer, Joski said.
Shawano County resident Becky May says its not uncommon to get behind a piece of large farm machinery moving down a rural highway.
"I know they aren't traveling far so I just make up my mind to be patient," she said. "However, I've seen drivers pass three or four cars plus the tractor and the implement because they're in a hurry."
While Joski urges machinery operators to consider the routes they travel, oftentimes they must navigate well-traveled roads.
"Any time you have to make a left turn that becomes problematic. And if you're operating a piece of equipment that doesn't have directional lights on it, then you're really putting yourself as well as other drivers in a risky situation," Joski noted.
The Kewaunee County Sheriff also reminds motorists to respect farm machinery and understand that the large vehicles and implements have many blind spots.
"Just because you can see that piece of equipment, don't assume they can see you. And don't assume any direction that they may take. They make may a left turn or a right turn or stop with little notice," he said. "Just put plenty of distance between yourself and those pieces of equipment."
Speed and inattentiveness can be a deadly combination, especially when motorists suddenly find themselves coming upon a slow moving vehicle in a hurry.
"In the accidents that we've responded to, we've attributed it to inattentive driving where motor vehicle operators didn't realize they were closing in on that piece of slow moving machinery that rapidly," Joski said. "You don't realize how fast you close that gap when you're traveling 60 mph and the farm machinery in front of you is moving 15 mph."
On the other hand, Joski has seen cases of farm operators failing to yield the right of way to motor vehicles.
"They have this sense of urgency and want to be able to finish what they're doing, especially if bad weather is coming," Joski said. "We've seen accidents as a result of farm equipment not stopping all the way or pulling out into the right of way of other traffic."
Scott Heiberger of the National Farm Medicine Center in Marshfield, WI, pointed to Wisconsin Department of Transportation data that shows over the past decade there have been about 1,400 Wisconsin traffic crashes involving farm machines. These incident have caused 708 injuries and 25 fatalities.
“We’re going to see more interaction on roadways as people commute further to jobs, and farmers travel longer distances to their fields. It’s more important than ever that everyone on the road be alert, cautious and visible,” Heiberger said.
Joski understands the pressure on farmers to get the crop off the fields - especially during a late harvest season. But this haste must also be accompanied by responsibly sharing the road with other motorists.
"This whole idea of co-mingling agricultural equipment on roadways is sort of a delicate dance, so everyone has to be at the top of their game," Joski said. "Passenger vehicles need to realize that farm equipment is out there going from field to field to get the work done.
"And farmers need to realize that they play an important role in safety. They are operating a huge piece of equipment and when something hits it, the damage is usually on the part of the other unit, and not their equipment," he added. "It would be tragic just because they were in a hurry just to get the crops in storage....is that really going to matter if someone loses their life?"
Jefferson County Sheriff Paul Milbrath told members of the media earlier this week that the accident remains under investigation and would not speculate whether charges would be filed in the crash or not.