Farmers, motorists face potential dangerous springtime encounters on rural roads

Dan Hansen
Correspondent
After several months of having rural roads mostly to themselves, drivers of cars and trucks are now regularly sharing these roads with a variety of farm implements.

GREENLEAF, Wis. – After several months of having rural roads mostly to themselves, drivers of cars and trucks are now regularly sharing these roads with a variety of farm implements.

At nearly any time of day or evening, motorists may encounter tractors pulling large manure tankers, tillage equipment, planters and other implements of husbandry or agricultural commercial vehicles.

In order to help create an awareness of the potential hazards for farmers and motorists during these situations, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation and Brickstead Dairy, recently conducted safety demonstrations – on a portion of a rural Brown County road that was closed to other traffic – featuring typical scenarios that often occur during the planting and harvest seasons.

Common roadway issues

Cheryl Skjolaas, senior outreach specialist with the UW Center for Agricultural Safety and Health, stated that potential dangers occur when motorists attempt to pass in a no-passing zone, on a hill, or when attempting to pass farm equipment making left-hand turns into fields or driveways, and when passing near a controlled intersection.

“Because farm equipment is large and moving so much slower than cars and trucks, motorists should slow down immediately upon seeing farm equipment or any other slow moving vehicles on the roadway,” she said. “It only takes five seconds to close a gap the length of a football field between a tractor traveling at 15 miles per hour and a car traveling at 55 miles per hour.”

Since 2014, it has been illegal for anyone to pass an implement of husbandry or an ag commercial motor vehicle in a no-passing zone. Following a tractor for one miles will slow you down by less than the time it takes to wait for one red light.

Passing on a hill is always dangerous, according to Skjolaas. “Do not pass unless you have a clear view on any oncoming traffic,” she emphasized. 

Passing on a hill is always dangerous because there’s no way to know what might be coming from the opposite direction.

This time of year it’s common to see farm implements making left-hand turns into farm fields and farmstead driveways. “Motorists should watch for turn signals and hand signals from farmers indicating a left-hand turn,” she cautioned.

Motorists often attempt to pass farm equipment when both are approaching a stop sign. “This can be more dangerous than you might think because large farm equipment requires so much extra distance to come to a complete stop,” Skjolaas said.

Proper lighting increases safety

Proper marking and lighting of farm equipment is to help give motorists clues to the dimensions of the farm equipment and improve overall visibility, Skjolaas noted.

The slow moving vehicle (SMV) orange and red triangle is placed on the rear of equipment that usually travels at less than 25 miles per hour. “Farmers need to be sure their SMV is a bright orange in the center, which improves daylight visibility, and that the retro-reflective red is on the outside of the emblem,” she said. “Using the SMV emblem on anything other than farm equipment is illegal.”

Different widths of equipment have different lighting requirements. “Measure the width of your equipment from your tractor at its widest point and all the way back,” said Skjolaas. “While most of the marking requirements start at 15 feet width, mark and light everything even if it’s less than 15 feet because you want to be seen by that motorist.” 

Proper marking and lighting of farm equipment helps motorists determine size of the equipment while improving overall visibility.

She recommends that the top of the tractor should feature a flashing strobe light along with hazard lights and turn signals. “Farmers have the responsibility to warn the motorist that they’re going to turn,” Skjolaas stressed. “Turning on your signal several extra feet before making the turn is important because motorists traveling behind your equipment with the hazard lights flashing might easily miss it if you suddenly activate your turn signals just before you start turning.”

Information for properly marking and lighting farm equipment is available online on the Ag vehicle safety webpage at wisconsindot.gov.

Education still needed

Dan Brick, whose equipment was used for the road safety demonstration, believes most drivers could use a refresher course when it comes to safely sharing the road with farm implements.

“Over the years people seem to get more impatient in trying to pass farm equipment. We’re concerned for the safety of motorist and also about the safety of our drivers and our equipment,” he said. “We have only about a two-week window to get our crops planted, and damage to a grain drill will shut us down while we wait to get replacement parts, which can be especially hard to come by these days.” 

Since 2014, it has been illegal for anyone to pass an implement of husbandry or an ag commercial motor vehicle in a no-passing zone.

Farmers are advised not to motion motorists to pass as that may create confusing about what is safe and legal. “Let the driver make the decision that it is safe to pass,” Skjolaas suggested. “If a line of cars is forming behind equipment, farmers should pull over when it’s safe and allow cars to pass.”

Since 2011, 39 people have been killed and 896 injured in crashes involving agricultural equipment. Because everyone wants to return home safely at the end of the day, it’s important for farmers and motorists to work together to ensure that rural roads are safe for everyone,