Ag leaders advocate for road awareness during National Farm Safety and Health Week

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
In 2014, it became illegal to pass an IOH which include farm tractors and farm machinery, or an Ag-Commercial Motor Vehicle, trucks that are specially designed for agricultural work, in a no-passing zone.

Wisconsin's ag leaders are calling for awareness and care on the road during National Farm Safety and Health Week, which is taking place Sept. 20 to 26.

A joint press conference held Sept. 21 by the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and Department of Transportation stressed the importance of paying attention while driving for both motorists and ag producers.

The conference included comments from Joe Bragger, president and CEO of WFBF; Randy Romanski, secretary-designee of DATCP; Craig Thompson, secretary-designee of DOT; Cheryl Skjolaas, senior outreach specialist for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Agricultural Safety and Health; and Shane Goplin, president of the Trempealeau County Farm Bureau.

Bragger said his organization takes road safety seriously among farmers and non-farmers alike since both have to share public roadways at all times of the year. Bragger said farmers and motorists are alike in being under pressure on the road and needing to get somewhere, but he asked motorists to reconsider passing that tractor, because it could lead to life-changing tragedy in an instant.

"Farmers who have experienced these kinds of accidents – it has changed their lives," Bragger said. "Vehicles and farming equipment can be repaired or replaced, oftentimes at great cost, but a life cannot be replaced. A family cannot be made whole, and the memories of an accident will haunt you and everyone for a lifetime."

The fall season means many farmers will be on the road working the harvest, which Romanski said means traffic will need to slow to accommodate farm vehicles that can't go as fast as other cars and trucks. Romanski said that not only does this save lives, but it also keeps Wisconsin's ag industry strong in supporting our rural communities and local economies.

"It's no wonder that Wisconsin roads get busier in the fall. Farmers are out there working hard to get their product off the farm and onto the next step in the supply chain," Romanski said. "As you're navigating Wisconsin roadways this fall, whether you're driving a car or a combine, please be patient – allow room for farm vehicles and focus on the road."

Motorists must do their part to keep roadways safe for farmers, Thompson said, adding that motorists must be paying attention to the road and be ready to slow down if they're going too fast in an area with agricultural activity. He also noted that it's on farmers to keep their equipment up to snuff with proper lighting, markings and signage to indicate they will be going slowly, as well as indicating turn signals.

"If you do decide to pass, be very cautious – in Wisconsin, it is illegal to pass an ag vehicle in a no-passing zone," Thompson said. "If you're operating an ag vehicle, make sure you know the lighting and marking requirements. Be familiar with the weight restrictions for roads."

Thompson shared some statistics related to motorist-farmer collisions in Wisconsin. He said last year there were 165 crashes involving farm vehicles on public roadways, which resulted in 53 injuries and three deaths. Since 2010, there have been 1,726 farm vehicle crashes, injuring 839 people and killing 27.

Tractors and other implements of husbandry (IOH) along with commerical ag vehicle like this sprayer, are allowed to operate on Wisconsin roadways but are often large and slow-moving which can cause confusion for drivers sharing the roads.

Skjolaas, who's worked in agriculture safety for 30 years, shared that over the time spent in her role, she's seen crashes between cars and farm vehicles increase. She said rear-end crashes are especially frequent due to the speed differences between cars and farm equipment like tractors, which often can't go beyond 25 miles per hour. Skjolaas noted that farm vehicles need to make very wide left turns, but if not signaled properly, other motorists may think they're moving over and can pass – which can end in an ugly collision.

"It's going to be hard to see around that slower moving, wider (farm) equipment," Skjolaas said. "Take the time, stay behind it. It's only going to add a few seconds of time."

Skjolaas added that farmers should ensure their slow moving vehicle emblem, an orange and red triangle, is kept up to date on their farm equipment so it's bright and reflective, especially at night where visibility is lower. She said farmers have the right to be on the road just like anyone else, but it doesn't absolve them of their responsibilities.

"Farmers ... share the road. You have the right to be on the road," Skjolaas said. "But remember that when you have an oncoming motorist, you need to work to get back in your lane if you're traveling along that center line."

Goplin, who grows alfalfa, corn and rye in Osseo, said the roads in his area are not straight or flat, which can lead to dangerous driving with decreased reaction time. He said farmers make detailed plans for their routes on public roadways for that reason, especially when they need to access hidden driveways. He called for better driver's education for youth in agricultural areas.

"I really think that education is key to our youth," Goplin said. "I would like to work with the Department of Transportation and Farm Bureau to educate motorists on how farming works on the road."

Goplin said he's had many close calls himself with left turns and passing, explaining that road responsibility is a "two-way street." He shared that even this fall, he's had issues with making wide left turns with signaling and impatient motorists behind him have tried to pass, nearly resulting in collision.

"There's a lot of things I love about farming, but driving on the roads is not one of them," Goplin said. "The goal every morning when I leave the house is I want to make it home to my family. But, in a sense, I want all the other motorists on the road to come home safely at night too."