Fall harvest requires safe driving on roadways for farmers and motorists

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer
Since 2014, it has been illegal to pass farm equipment, in a no-passing zone regardless of the speed the equipment is traveling.

Growing up on a farm on a busy country highway, we were very aware of traffic as we transported harvests from field to farm. Left-hand turns into our farm were risky and it was always a relief to complete a day's work with no incident. 

I can't remember any accidents (but that doesn't mean my memory is correct) but I've heard from other farmers about close calls and inconsiderate drivers.

Now living in a more suburban area dotted with mostly crop farmers, I witness the impatient drivers passing when they shouldn't, rushing up on a slow-moving vehicles and not respecting the necessity of safety on the roads. 

Cooler weather and shorter days signal the arrival of fall and with it, farmers heading to fields to begin harvest. The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation (WFBF) and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation encourage farmers and motorists to work together to keep Wisconsin roadways safe this fall.

“Everyone wants to return home safely at the end of the day,” said Wisconsin Farm Bureau spokeswoman Sarah Hetke in a news release. “Safety on the roadways is a joint responsibility between farmers and motorists.”

According to the Wisconsin DOT, over the last decade (2009-2018) 32 people have been killed and 874 injured in crashes involving agricultural equipment, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau reported. 

The WFBF notes three scenarios drivers and farmers should know how to handle on the roads: passing farm equipment, left-hand turns and braking distance needed at controlled intersections.


Since 2014, it has been illegal to pass farm equipment, in a no-passing zone regardless of the speed the equipment is traveling. Motorists should wait until they enter a passing zone and have deemed it is safe to pass.

It is illegal to pass farm equipment in a no passing zone.

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. Additionally, farmers should not wave a driver to pass them as this can create additional confusion.

Farmers with wide equipment are legally obligated to yield the opposite lane to any oncoming motorists as to not impede the normal flow of traffic.

Left-hand turn

Farmers attempting to make a left-hand turn can create a dangerous situation if motorists are not attentive.

Farm equipment, especially tractors, will likely have two flashing amber or yellow lights on the cab or tire fenders of the tractor when in operation on the roadway. When a farmer signals to turn, the light will continue to flash in the direction the farmer is turning. The other light will go solid. For motorists, this is a very important distinction to recognize.

It can turn into a dangerous situation when a farmer is attempting to make a left-hand turn.

For farm tractors or farm machinery without turn signals, hand signals should be used to indicate the operator’s intention to turn. 

A controlled intersection

Even if a motorist legally passes large farm equipment within a very short distance of a controlled intersection (stop sign or stop lights), this action can dramatically impact the reaction time and braking distance for the farm equipment operator. Farm equipment is much heavier than a normal passenger vehicle which requires greater braking distance.     

“Farm equipment is big, slow and not very maneuverable, it doesn’t behave like cars and trucks when it comes to speed, turning or braking,” said Cheryl Skjolaas, agricultural safety specialist in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension and the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences in a news release. “Its size makes it hard to move over quickly and it will take longer for it to turn into driveways or intersections. It is also difficult for the farm implement operator to see other vehicles that are following or passing farm equipment.”

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.

The combination of slow traveling farm equipment and faster motor vehicles means the time before the two meet can be seconds. Most farm equipment is operating at speeds under 25 mph. A motor vehicle coming up behind a farm implement has only seconds to stop before a crash may occur. Any type of distracted driving — talking on cellphone, checking a text message, being tired- can make stopping without a crash almost impossible.

Skjolaas said, “For the motorists, we really want you to be taking your time, looking up the road a distance for that slow moving farm machinery and when you see something in the distance, start slowing down because if that equipment is operating 15 miles per hour and you’re traveling 55 miles per hour, we’re talking in 300 feet you have like 3 seconds to be slowing down.”

Farmers are asked to comply with the proper lighting and marking requirements to draw attention to the size, shape and speed of agricultural vehicles and to alert drivers that caution is required. There are specific requirements for different types of equipment, according to the WFBF. This information can be found at

Motorist tips

Skjolaas offered some tips and reminders for motorists during the fall harvest season:

• Look for lighting and marking on the farm implements. Farm machinery that usually travels less than 25 miles per hour (mph) is required to display a ‘slow moving vehicle’ or SMV emblem on the back. It is an orange and red triangle visible to the rear on either the left hand side of the tractor or towing implement or the rear most towed vehicle. This is a key marking that a driver is approaching a farm implement.

Cheryl Skjolaas, UW-Extension agriculture safety specialist, talks about proper marking of equipment during a road safety demonstration on Aug. 31, 2018.

• Keep a safe distance back. The farm vehicle operator may not be able to see around the equipment, so don’t assume that the operator knows you are approaching. Similar to semi-trucks, many use large extended mirrors. When a driver follows too closely, the vehicle isn’t visible to the farm equipment operator.

• Check for turn signals. On farm tractors or self-propelled machines like combines, the flashing lights are also turn signals. When following slow moving machines for a distance, it is easy to miss that operator has signaled for a turn. Or watch for the operator to use a hand signal when signal lights are not present.

• During hours of darkness and low light situations when visibility is less than 500 feet such as when foggy or raining, everyone should have headlights on.

• Farm implements may be traveling on roads where they are normally not expected For example, farmers may use local streets or highways to transport grain to storage facilities.

• A road sign to watch for is a yellow and black warning sign with the symbol of a farmer driving a tractor. These signs are within 500 feet of a driveway to alert motorists of a farm or field drive with an obstructed view such as on a hill or around a curve.

Farmers should also know their local weight restrictions. Generally, agricultural weight limits are 23,000 pounds per axle or 92,000 pounds gross vehicle weight, dependent on number of axles and axle spacing, and subject to seasonal or special postings, according to the Wisconsin Farm Bureau.

Farmers can find more information about weight limits from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

In our area of Waukesha County, you're likely to find people heading out to pick pumpkins or apples, see fall colors or visit a corn maze. Hopefully the fall colors they see and respect include the red and orange of slow moving vehicle signs on farm equipment. 

Carol Spaeth-Bauer at 262-875-9490 or Follow her on Twitter at cspaethbauer or Facebook at