Farmers, motorists cautioned to be on alert this summer

Farm machinery on roadways prompts safety message to drivers
Oregon Department of Agriculture,

Road construction crews aren’t the only ones to be aware of this summer as Oregonians get behind the wheel. It’s also the season for slow moving farm machinery- including trucks, tractors, and combines- to occasionally use the same roadway. Whether the sharing of the traffic lanes takes place in the more congested Willamette Valley or the wide open spaces of Eastern Oregon, the general advice is the same- be on the alert, slow down, and have patience.

A new law passed during the just-completed legislative session gives another compelling reason for motor vehicle drivers to pay more attention when they see farm equipment on the road.

“Oregon motorists hear a lot this time of year about safe driving,” says Katy Coba, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “There are more drivers on the road and there is more road construction. The constant message is slow down. That’s the exact same message we want to get across when it comes to the summer harvest season. If you see farm equipment on the road, please slow down.”

It is legal for farmers to drive equipment on public roads. Farmers normally try to avoid using higher traveled roads as much as possible, but sometimes that just can’t happen.

Coba was raised on a Umatilla County wheat ranch. Many times, combines needed to travel down a road to get to another field.

“In a good situation, that involved gravel roads without much traffic,” she recalls. “But one piece of our property was 25 miles from the rest of the ranch and we couldn’t avoid being on the same road as motor vehicles. We would have flag trucks (pilot vehicles) in front of and behind the combine and always tried to pull off the side of the road when traffic was coming.”

For most farmers and ranchers, nothing has changed except for an increase in the amount of traffic on a majority of roadways. With urban development moving closer to agricultural operations in recent years, there is an increased risk of motor vehicle accidents involving farmers and non-farmers.

Statistics provided by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) show that, in the past 10 years, there were 511 accidents involving either farm equipment or motor vehicles licensed as farm plated trucks. As a percentage of all motor vehicle accidents in Oregon in that time frame, that may not seem like very many. But for the victims of those crashes- and their families- a single accident is one too many. Last summer, Jack and Arlene Gourley lost their 16-year old son Nathan when he was hit by a passing log truck while driving a hay wagon at the family dairy near Scio. Because the hay wagon contained a cab in which Nathan sat, the consequences of the accident fell short of those had he been riding an old John Deere tractor without a cab. As a result, “Nathan’s Law” came before lawmakers.

Thanks largely to the efforts of Rep. Sherrie Sprenger of Scio, the Oregon Legislature approved HB 2554 this year, which proponents believe will improve road and highway safety as it involves farm vehicles and equipment. The legal definition of “vulnerable user of public way” now includes any farm tractor or implement involved in agricultural activity, along with pedestrians and bicyclists. Up to now, only those tractors “without an enclosed shell” fell into that category. Drivers of tractors or farm vehicles with an enclosed cab were not given the same legal protection even though most tractors, combines, and newer farm equipment now fit that description. The new law increases penalties for careless and reckless driving near and around all tractors.

“While farmers take safety precautions to ensure their machinery is easily visible, not all situations are met with appropriate caution,” says Barry Bushue, president of the Oregon Farm Bureau. “HB 2554 provides protections for operators of all farm equipment on Oregon’s roads and reminds us that we all have a responsibility to share the road as we enter the harvest season. We hope this law will remind folks that they should not let eagerness to get where they are going endanger themselves or operators of farm equipment.”

ODOT and the Oregon Seed Council have teamed up this summer to provide tips for motorists who may come across farm vehicles in the days ahead.

“We often forget that farmers have as much right to use the roads as the rest of us,” says Walt McAllister of ODOT’s Safety Division and a weekend farmer. “Not only are they on the road legally, but their equipment can be far wider than what we’re used to seeing, and they can usually only go 15 to 25 miles per hour.”

Among the advice for general motorists:

* Don’t assume the farmer knows you’re there and don’t assume the farmer can immediately move aside to let you pass
* A farmer understands that your trip is being delayed; he or she will pull off the road at the first available safe location to allow you to pass
* Even if you have to slow down to 20 mph and follow a tractor for two miles, it takes only six minutes of your time, which is approximately the same as waiting for two stoplights
* Pass with caution and don’t pass unless you can see clearly ahead of both you and the vehicle you will pass. Be watchful of vehicles behind you that may also try to pass
* Don’t assume a farm vehicle that pulls to the side of the road is turning or letting you pass. Due to the size of some farm implements, the farmer must execute wide turns in both directions

Oregon law requires farmers to clearly identify slow moving vehicles with reflectors, turn on lights, avoid the roadway during rush hours, bad weather, and at night, and use pilot cars, one in front and one in back, if they are going a considerable distance.

With common sense and caution, this summer can be travel-safe for everyone on and off the farm.

For more information, contact Bruce Pokarney at (503) 986-4559.

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