Rural Roads & Ag Safety
You know the feeling: You’re late for work (hair appointment, golf date, piano lessons), and you’re sitting behind a monster tractor, whose driver clearly has nothing more to do than creep down a country road at 15 miles per hour.
You tap the horn. Nothing. You nudge up a little closer behind him. Nothing. You tap your fingers on the wheel and mutter underneath your breath. Nothing. Finally, frustrated and annoyed, you drop back, gun it and start to pass – just as another car races toward you at 80 mph from the opposite direction.
A familiar scenario? Of course. More and more of us are driving on Tennessee’s rural roads, as more and larger farm equipment needs to use those same roads.
The result is an increasingly dangerous situation for farmers and drivers alike, and the solution may be something as simple as a little patience and consideration. “I experienced angry drivers more times last year than ever before,” says Rickey Black, who farms 3,200 acres in four West Tennessee counties and knows all about the perils of moving large farm equipment from one farm to another. “I think we’ve become such a fast-paced society that we’ve become a little selfish – we only think about what’s important to us.”
Black’s situation represents a trend seen around the country, says John Woolfolk, associate director of commodities for the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation.
“If you go back to the early 1900s farmers rarely left their farms,” says Woolfolk, who farms 800 acres in Madison County. “Now farmers may farm in several locations.
The narrow profit margin per acre these days and the higher cost of production mean that to support your family, you have to have numerous acres, often not adjacent, for which you have to buy bigger equipment. Today’s farming requires much more time on the road than in years past.”
Larger farms and bigger equipment are half the equation. The other is increasing traffic on rural roads. A study by The Road Information Program (TRIP) found that travel on the nation’s rural roads increased by 27 percent between 1990 and 2002. The number of people living in rural communities increased 11 percent during those same years.
At the same time, 94 percent of rural roads are two lanes and far more likely to “have poor roadway design, including narrow lanes, limited shoulders, sharp curves, exposed hazards, pavement drop-offs, steep slopes and limited clear zones along roadsides,” according to TRIP.
The problem of more and bigger farm vehicles versus more traffic on roads not designed for it becomes clear. In Tennessee, the state Department of Safety reports 405 crashes involving farm equipment in 2003-2005. Six of those crashes resulted in fatalities and 125 in injuries.
No wonder country singer Craig Morgan’s tune “International Harvester” sings of “Three miles of cars layin’ on their horns, fallin’ on deaf ears of corn, lined up behind me like a big parade.”
Black says he fears little notice will be paid to rural road safety until a major tragedy occurs. He pleads for a little understanding from the non-farming public.
“I know people get frustrated,” he says. “They’re headed to a big office somewhere, a big desk, a lot of paperwork, but they don’t realize that I’m already in my office. I have to be on the road to get to where my job takes me too. We have to educate people to respect this equipment and understand why it’s on the road.”
For his part, Black suggests drivers stay at least two car lengths behind him so that he can see them. Tennessee state law dictates that equipment drivers must pull over if five or more vehicles are behind them. And farmers will do just that, as soon as they safely can – which may take a few minutes. Don’t drive him into a ditch, he asks, and don’t expect him to wave you around.
“If you pull up behind me, I will do everything I can to let you pass me, but I am not going to get off the road on a double yellow line and motion for you to come around beside me,” says Black. “
Problem is, I have a 25-foot-wide vehicle, so where am I going to pull off the road? The first safe place I see, I will do it. But be patient with me – I don’t want to have you back there any more than you want to be there.”
Safety Tips While On the Road
- At 55 miles per hour, it will take only five seconds to close a gap the length of a football field between you and a tractor going five miles per hour.
- Watch for hand signals that a tractor driver may use to signal he is turning or stopping.
- Do not pull out in front of farm equipment. It cannot stop or slow down as easily as a car, especially if pulling other equipment.
- If an oversized farm vehicle is coming your way from the opposite direction, make sure you can pass it safely. If not, pull over and wait for it to pass.
- Remember that if you must slow down to 20 mph behind a tractor for two miles, you will only lose six minutes.