Sharing Wisconsin roads safely with farm vehicles

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
During this demonstration, Keith Oudenhoven slams on the brakes of his tractor to avoid colliding with a motorist attempting to pass him who failed to notice the tractor driver signaling to make a left turn into a farm driveway.

Each day, Kelly Oudenhoven spends time walking through the barns, checking on the cows. While she's tuned into the rhythms and sounds inside the family's dairy barn, she is constantly aware of the traffic zooming by their rural DePere farm—especially when her husband, Keith, or father-in-law Larry, are out there driving farm machinery on the busy county highway.

"It's scary when you hear the sound of someone slamming on the brakes because they weren't paying attention. It's a real heart in the throat moment for me, wondering if this time it was more than a close call," the mother of three (soon to be four) said.

The Oudenhoven family partnered with UW Extension to host a Rural Safety Media Day at Larrand Dairy on March 26, the family's third generation dairy farm. The location of the event served as the perfect backdrop for traffic hazards the family faces on a daily basis, especially during planting and harvest seasons.

The main driveway leading into the 375-cow operation sits at the bottom of a small hill. Traffic traveling south over the small curving rise is greeted by No Passing signage due to low visibility on the hill. Northbound traffic moving down the hill, however, is not restricted. 

Keith Oudenhoven says his family has had plenty of close calls especially as they attempt left hand turns into the farm driveway. Only a few weeks ago, Keith was pulling a large piece of farm machinery down the hill and was just inches away from a crash as he attempted to turn into the farm driveway.

"A car was coming up behind me and I could see him in my mirrors. I thought he was slowing up and was going to stay behind me, so I signaled and pulled out like I normally do to make a left turn and he came around me at that same exact moment," Keith recalled. "It was pretty close; he was on the shoulder of the road and I had stepped hard enough on the brakes for a panic stop. My heart was beating pretty fast. Unfortunately this is all too common."

As the land dries out, farmers will be taking their rightful place on the roadways to begin planting crops. These slow-moving tractors and other implements of husbandry (IOH) can create confusing and dangerous situations for motorists who are unprepared to drive safely around this large equipment.

Passing a slow moving vehicle in a no passing zone on a hill not only puts the motorist (and possible oncoming traffic) in danger, but the driver of the farm machinery as well.

Last year, there were 175 traffic-related crashes involving farm equipment that resulted in 71 injuries and seven fatalities.

"One accident involving farm equipment on the roadway is too many," said Wisconsin Farm Bureau President Jim Holte. "At the end of the day farmers and motorists alike want to return home to their families. Safety has to be a top priority for everyone sharing the road."

No passing zones

Since 2014, it has been illegal to pass an IOH which include farm tractors and farm machinery, or an Ag-Commercial Motor Vehicle, and trucks that are specially designed for agricultural work, in a no-passing zone.

Despite being a law on the books, Craig Lamers says motorists pass his 12-ton self-propelled commercial sprayer nearly every day as he heads out to spray farm fields for Country Visions Cooperative.

"Our larger vehicles have backup cameras, so as we're traveling down the road we can watch the vehicles behind us. So if you're planning to make a left turn into a driveway, you can see if they're trying to pass you," Lamers said.

Lamers says it's challenging to pull the large, heavy vehicle over to the shoulder when meeting an oncoming vehicle on a narrow road.

"You really have to slow down and pay attention so you don't get sucked down into the ditch," he said.

According to the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation (WFBF), farmers should not pull over in a no-passing zone to let vehicles pass, unless the road shoulder condition and width can allow for the farm machinery to completely move onto the shoulder.

In a passing zone, or if shoulder width permits, farmers are obligated to yield the roadway to the overtaking vehicle so they do not impede the normal movement of traffic.

Reading the signals

As motorists cruise down rural byways, many fail to pay attention to the hundreds of driveways leading into and out of farm fields and farm yards.

"During planting and harvest, we are constantly moving in and out of these driveways," said Carol Turner. "So many people get impatient following us down the road, but the majority of our farm fields are less than two miles from the farm."

Motorists should pay attention to farm machinery turning into or pulling out of farm driveways.

Newer tractors are outfitted with two flashing amber lights on the cab or tire fenders to make them not only more visible while traveling down roadways, but to help communicate their intended movements to other drivers.

When a farmer signals to turn, the amber light continues to flash in the direction the farmer is turning, while the other light goes solid. For motorists, this is a very important distinction to recognize. For farm tractors or farm machinery without turn signals, hand signals should be used to indicate the operator’s intention to turn.

Cheryl Skjolaas, Agricultural Safety and Health Specialist for UW Extension, says farmers have a responsibility to alert motorists if they are planning to turn.

"If you don't have flashing lights, be sure to use hand signals or have someone follow behind and be that pilot vehicle for you," she said.

Slow down

Those living in Wisconsin and traveling rural areas should be prepared to meet farm machinery any time of the day or night says Stan Kaczmarek who has driven combines and service trucks for canning factories for years.

"Agriculture works around the clock seven days a week, especially during planting time and harvest," he said. "While traveling in the Central Sands region it's not uncommon to encounter a convoy of three to 10 vegetable harvesters moving from field to field. People have to understand that they have just as much of a right to be on the road as anyone else. We're just out there doing our job so we can put food on your table."

Skjolaas says speed and inattentiveness are two driver errors most prevalent on accident reports involving farm machinery.

"The speed difference between the motor vehicle and farm machinery is a big factor, even more so on divided highways where a vehicle moving 65 mph comes upon a tractor moving 15 mph," she said. "That closure time is just seconds."

According to the National Ag Safety Database, a vehicle moving 55 mph approaching a tractor traveling at 15 mph, takes only five seconds to close a gap the length of a football field.

"That's not much time to react," Skjolaas said.

Being proactive

Skjolaas says the prevention of crashes starts before farmers even leave the farm yard by making sure their tractors and equipment are in compliance with the lighting and marking of IOH regulations that went into effect on Nov. 1, 2015. This includes outfitting machinery with lights and extremity markings using retroreflective materials as well as the standard slow-moving vehicle (SMV) emblem. Extremity markings are critical in helping motorists to judge the width of the implement in low light situations.

Cheryl Skjolaas, Agricultural Safety and Health Specialist for UW Extension stresses the importance of marking farm equipment with SMV emblems, retroreflective extremity markings and lights.

If SMV emblems are faded, replace them with more reflective models. Also keep reflective marking tape, lights and SMV emblems clean and free from dirt and debris, she said.

"Lighting has come a long way. These are low-cost things you can do to make motorists more aware of you and are required if you're operating during hours of darkness, which also means that half hour before sunrise and after sunset," Skjolaas said. "I always tell farmers to light this equipment up like a Christmas tree including the use of strobe lights. Moving or flashing lights give motorists a greater sense of early warning that there's something up there ahead."

Skjolaas also notes that farmers are not to use white field lights while traveling on the road.

"They can use the headlights facing forward but it's illegal to have those rear-facing field lights on. It's disorienting to motorists because it looks like there's another vehicle coming at them," she pointed out.

Alert and focused

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation recommends drivers slow down immediately when they see a SMV emblem on the rear of a tractor or other piece of equipment. A SMV emblem is required on any type of IOH, including animal drawn, that usually travels at speeds of less than 25 mph.

Unfortunately many motorists fail to yield to their rural counterparts out sharing the road with them. Sgt. John Hoffmann of the Outagamie Sheriff's Office says being cautious and alert are key to keeping themselves and farmers safe.

"When I'm passing a piece of farm equipment, I really take my time in assessing the situation: what is the farmer doing? Is he approaching a driveway? Could he be making a left turn?" Hoffmann said. "I'm am very cautious before committing myself to making that pass."

Following farm machinery too closely results in many "close calls" or even accidents.

Hoffmann also warns motorists not to make assumptions about the operators of farm machinery.

"Never make the assumption that the farmer knows that you're there or knows what your intentions are. They're up in that cab with a lot of road and engine noise and may not know that your car is even there," he said.

Wisconsin State Patrol Inspector CJ Dahl says patience could make a difference between life or death.

"Typically this equipment is not traveling more than a mile or so down the road and anticipate that they may be turning into the driveway of that farm up ahead," Dahl said. "Be patient and share the road with farm equipment realizing these guys are out there just doing a job."