Highway safety

A farmer drives a tractor down a highway. Those dealing with increased time on the road during harvest advise patience and precautions.

Duane Aistrope had a close call on the road last year, and he’s not alone. Quite a few farmers have had near misses, especially when moving large pieces of farm equipment.

It’s a good reminder that the harvest season is also a dangerous season on the road.

“Patience is a virtue,” says Carol Miller, who farms with her husband, Randy, at the edge of Ankeny. “It could save your life.”

That patience, Miller says, needs to be practiced by the farmer and the people sharing the roads with farmers.

Miller is used to dealing with city traffic as she and her husband move equipment from field to field. At times, she says, it can be dangerous. Drivers get impatient and don’t understand that farmers may be able to drive on the shoulder of the road but still need to swerve out to get around mailboxes or over bridges.

Aistrope’s close call didn’t actually come when he was driving the tractor or combine from field to field. It came in the semi-truck. He came over a hill to find a driver stopped in the road waiting to make a left turn.

Although Aistrope was not going fast, there was not enough time to react. He took the shoulder, but ended up hitting a culvert.

“I totaled my semi,” he says. “Trucks just can’t stop that fast.”

The same is often true of field equipment, he says. Aistrope, who farms near Randolph in southwest Iowa, says farmers need to pay attention and keep their equipment up to date. That means making sure all the lights and turn signals work, having the Slow Moving Vehicle sign and driving defensively.

But farmers also need to remind non-farming neighbors that farm equipment can’t stop on a dime and cannot safely go faster on the road.

Iowa Department of Transportation statistics indicate there are about 200 accidents involving farm vehicles and equipment in the state each year. From 2015 to 2019, the number ranged from 197 to 223. The number of injuries and fatalities, both from farm machinery operators and people in other vehicles, has ranged from 79 to 115 per year during that five-year span.

Research has also indicated that younger drivers and older drivers are the ones most likely to be involved in the crashes, and older farm vehicle accidents are more likely to result in serious injuries.

Mandy Kliethermes and her husband, Mark, live on a farm along a divided highway, and she works for the Missouri Department of Transportation. Kliethermes says data is still preliminary, but in 2019 there were three people killed and 13 seriously injured in crashes on Missouri roadways involving a farm vehicle. She says any fatality can have a large impact for family farms.

“When you lose a farmer, sometimes you lose a generation on the farm,” she says.

Highway safety in these situations starts with being aware and slowing down.

“We really want to put an emphasis on the motoring public, when you see a farm vehicle, slow down,” Kliethermes says. “Pass on the left and only when you have a clear distance. Watch for hand signals.”

She says farmers should also take the header off combines before moving them on roads.

Jennifer Poindexter, director of promotion and education for Missouri Farm Bureau, says farm safety and highway safety are important for her organization.

“We want to make sure that farmers are being safe, and we care about our members,” she says.

Poindexter says rollover protective structures (ROPS) are an important safety feature, and farmers should buckle up if their tractor has seat belts and also buckle up passengers in the “buddy seat.” Farm equipment should also have slow-moving vehicle triangles, and flashers on if possible. She says motorists can help out by being aware.

“We want them to just be aware of their surroundings,” she says. “Look for oncoming vehicles at one-lane bridges, never pass on a hill. Be aware and be courteous, because these farmers are trying to get home at night.”

If possible, Poindexter says farmers can avoid moving equipment during the busier times of day, during the morning commute or around the time workdays end, often from 4 to 5:30 p.m.

Aistrope agrees with Miller that patience is an important piece of the puzzle.

He said farmers should inspect equipment, and when handing the keys to a child or parent or hired worker, they should conduct a walk-around of the machine with the other person to make sure they are familiar with it and with any potential problems.

Additional reporting by Benjamin Herrold.

Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.