Putting road safety on a fast track

07/28/2011 @ 1:31pm

Daryl Hodel was towing a large wagon behind his tractor on U.S. 24 near El Paso, Illinois, in the fall of 2008. His wife, Deb, followed him in a pickup.

As he reached the field a half mile down the road, Hodel flipped on his left turn tractor and wagon signals. His wifealso signalled a left turn. Then she saw two semis approaching at 60 mph. She radioed him, warning him not to turn.

Both semis blew past. “If I'd made the turn, I wouldn't be here today,” he says.

About one third of fatal tractor incidents occur on public roads, according to the National Safety Council. Nearly half of all collisions between motorists and farm implements involve either a left-hand turn or a rear-end collision.

A 2011 driver survey by GMAC Insurance reveals that more than one in five Americans lacks basic driving knowledge. Only one in four is aware of the safe following distance – a critical factor in motor vehicle and slow-moving machinery collisions.

Roadway safety issues are likely to accelerate, based on these trends:

● Increased motor vehicle traffic in more urbanized rural areas.

● Fewer motorists with farm backgrounds.

● Larger farms requiring longer commutes.

● Larger farm equipment extending into the opposing lane of traffic.

In Illinois, motor vehicle and farm equipment collisions have ranked as the second leading cause of death since 2008, according to surveys by Country Financial, Bloomington. In 2011, four fatalities stemmed from such collisions.

“Over the last 10 years, the state has averaged about 200 crashes of motorists and farm equipment a year,” says Bob Aherin, University of Illinois Extension safety specialist.

Illinois is not an isolated case. A 2009 USDA Research and Extension committee report addressed the ramped-up risks on rural roads.

“The issues of operating agricultural equipment on public roads are multifaceted and complex,” the report noted. The committee called for a concerted focus on research, engineering design standards, education programs for farmers and the public, as well as public policy changes.

For farmers, the issue goes beyond buckling up for personal safety; it extends into the realm of managing public liability risk.

Aherin says the ticket to being road ready is making farm equipment more visible. Unfortunately, there is no federal road map. Legislation introduced in the U.S. House this year by Aaron Schock (R-IL) and Leonard Boswell (D-IA) would require standardized lighting and marking on new equipment (H.R. 843).

State laws vary widely. “Ohio was the first to adopt an extremity lighting law for multiwheel tractors in 2001,” says Dee Jepsen, Ohio State University Extension safety specialist. “In 2006, Ohio required new signage and a valid driver's license for operators of high-speed [over 25 mph] ag equipment.”

Almost all states require a slow-moving vehicle (SMV) emblem mounted in the center or left of center of the rear of vehicles and implements of husbandry.

In 2004, Illinois passed a law requiring SMVs that combine a fluorescent material for daytime visibility and a reflective outline for nighttime. The emblems are fade-resistant and visible at 1,000 feet.

Other states fall short of this American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) SMV standard.

Aherin says Illinois legislative efforts to add extremity markings to older equipment have stalled. “We're still trying,” he says. “We need support from farm equipment and chemical companies.”

New equipment such as multiwheel tractors and towed equipment are addressing some issues.

Multiwheel tractors manufactured in 2000 and after feature:

● Flashing amber lights mounted within 16 inches of outer extremities on both sides visible to the front and rear, and between 3.3 and 12 feet from the ground.

● Amber reflective tape 2×9 inches, visible to the front, within 16 inches of outer extremities on both sides.

● Red reflective tape 2×9 inches, visible to the rear, within 16 inches of outer extremities on both sides.

Towed equipment after 2000 has:

● Two red reflectors.

● One red lamp mounted on the implement or wagon if towed implement or wagon obscures tractor's red rear lamps.

The lighting and marking illustrated above exceeds these features. Based on ASABE standards, it calls for:

● Two red tail lamps.

● Two white headlamps.

● Retroreflective tape visible at night from a distance of 1,200 feet when directly exposed to high-beam headlights.

● Amber reflectors marking the front of towed implements that protrude beyond the width of the towing farm tractor.

● A steady amber warning light at the widest part of the tractor or self-propelled implement, if it's wider than 8.5 feet.

More design changes are needed to catapult roadway safety onto the fast track. Hodel helped pass a resolution at last year's American Farm Bureau convention to petition manufacturers to improve rear equipment turn signals.

“The flashers and blinkers are amber,” he says. “We need a separate set of red blinkers shaped like an arrow. Drivers don't understand flashers and blinkers.”

Hodel has equipped an auger wagon with a camera to improve rear visibility.

Safety advocates also must raise public awareness. The producers committee of Iowa's Center for Agricultural Safety and Health (I-CASH) launched an It's Preventable campaign, providing tip cards to licensing stations, county health departments, fairs, and livestock shows.

A new 10-minute DVD and curriculum kit on preventing rural crashes is available, thanks to I-CASH, Iowa DOT, Great Plains Center for Agricultural Health, Iowa Dept. of Public Safety and other partners. “We want to look at ways other states could adapt it,” says I-CASH producer chair Jan Goldsmith.

Hodel's county Farm Bureau is reaching out to young drivers. “We bring farm equipment to driver's ed classes, let them in the cab and see the view,” he says.

Working with the media amplifies the message. During Hodel's 2008 near miss, he had invited a TV reporter along. “He got the whole thing on video, and he was shook up,” Hodel says. “He said, ‘Now I know what you're talking about.’ ”

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