Don’t risk your life on the pavement

Make sure all rearview mirrors are clean and not cracked or broken before you operate your equipment on a public road.

You’re operating a tractor on a public road. You may be pulling a planter, spray tank, wagon, cultivator or other equipment. You have done this hundreds of times in the past, and your mind is on getting to your destination as quickly as you can. Suddenly, you strike another vehicle – or a motor vehicle crashes into you.

Unfortunately, farm equipment-motor vehicle crashes on public roads continue to be very common. And while it’s easy to blame the motorist for not paying enough attention, fruit and vegetable growers are also often at fault.

“Safety on the roads is an afterthought for many farmers. Most will have one thing on their minds – getting the immediate task done,” says Dennis Murphy, Penn State University professor and extension safety specialist.

“Farmers don’t see moving their equipment on public roads as something that needs to be managed. They don’t think they need to think about it ahead of time by inspecting their equipment, including lights, brakes, slow-moving vehicle (SMV) emblems and extremity markers,” he adds.

The National Institute for Farm Safety, Inc.’s (NIFS) Traffic and Transportation Committee has started collecting nationwide data on the prevalence and outcome of farm equipment-motor vehicle crashes on public roads. NIFS, an organization comprised of agricultural safety and health professionals, hopes to raise awareness about this issue among both growers and the general public.

Preliminary data collected by committee member Murray Madsen, associate director of the Great Plains Center for Agricultural Health in Iowa City, Iowa, show that in nine Midwestern states in 2008, there were 1,083 farm equipment-motor vehicle crashes on public roads. These crashes resulted in 499 injuries and 21 deaths.

In Illinois alone, 249 such collisions in 2008 resulted in 74 injuries and four deaths, and in Iowa, 202 crashes resulted in 113 injuries and six deaths. The data does not include farm equipment collisions with parked motor vehicles or other fixed objects. (See accompanying chart for more information.)

Although Penn State’s Murphy says he does not have the data to determine what time of day or how most farm equipment-motor vehicle crashes occur, “anecdotally, they are happening at all hours of the day and both when the motorist approaches from the rear and when the farm equipment and motor vehicle meet each other. A big issue in Pennsylvania is the width of rural roads and poor visibility due to hills and curves.”

Problems often occur when a motor vehicle traveling at a high speed comes upon a tractor or other slow-moving equipment and the motorist does not have time to slow down. This may occur as a vehicle is attempting to pass the farm equipment from the rear but the equipment operator turns into a farm lane or a field and the motorist is not able to react in time.

Growing urbanization

Murphy is particularly concerned about the fact that “the motoring public has less and less familiarity with agricultural equipment and doesn’t take necessary precautions” such as slowing down or showing patience.

“Urbanization of traditional agricultural production regions and changing production practices have led to a substantial increase in the mix of agricultural equipment and licensed motor vehicles on public roads, creating safety problems,” he says.

Murphy recently chaired a committee convened by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service, which has released a report entitled “Agricultural Equipment on Public Roads.” (Visit this Web site,, to link to the report.)

The report calls for research describing the characteristics of crashes between motor vehicles and agricultural equipment. It also recommends development of a Uniform Vehicle Code to be adopted by all states that reflects the specific uses of modern agricultural equipment.

Farm Equipment-Motor Vehicle Crashes on Public Roads, 2008
North Dakota
South Dakota
Source: Murray Madsen, National Institute for Farm Safety Traffic and Transportation Committee)

“The committee believes that engineering design standards should be used to incorporate automatic and passive protection for drivers and riders of agricultural equipment during public road use,” Murphy says. “Safety education programs are needed to educate both the public and farmers on best practices for operating agricultural equipment on public roads, approaching slow-moving vehicles on public roads, and the effects of excluding agricultural equipment from road weight and use restrictions.”

Important safety tips

Madsen has these suggestions for farm equipment operators to reduce the risk of a collision with a motor vehicle on a public road:

  • Pick low-traffic times and low-traffic routes.
  • Maintain and use the latest lighting and marking technology, even in the daytime. Note: For the most up-to-date standards on lighting and marking, check ASAE Standard S279.14. The American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE), formerly the American Society of Agricultural Engineers (ASAE), is your best source. (ASABE’s Web site is
  • Ensure that trained and experienced operators transport equipment.
  • Ensure that the route chosen is capable of handling – and is the best route for – the equipment to be transported.
  • Transport equipment in the lowest width configuration and secure what could swing into traffic.
  • Secure towed equipment with proper hitching devices and safety chains.
  • Minimize left turns from the roadway and only turn left when traffic is clear.
  • Don’t hold up traffic. Move over and allow backed-up traffic to pass.

The Farm Safety Association, Inc. in Ontario, Canada ( also recommends that you perform a complete check of both the tractor and any trailed equipment before heading for the road. This check should include the following:

  • Ensure that safety hitch pins are securely fastened.
  • Make sure that the safety chain extends from the tractor to the frame of the towed equipment.
  • Check all tires on both the tractor and the towed equipment for air pressure, cuts and bumps.
  • Always lock brake pedals together for highway travel. Sudden braking on one wheel only at high speeds could put the tractor into a dangerous skid.
  • Ensure that rearview mirrors, flares and fire extinguishers are standard equipment for tractors frequently operated on public roads. Note: Also make sure rearview mirrors are kept clean and are not cracked or broken.
  • Confirm that all lights are operating properly.
  • Make sure SMV emblems are clean, not faded and properly mounted.
  • Check towed equipment to ensure that loads are balanced and properly secured and that the towed load is light enough for the tractor to handle safely.
Proper lighting, marking and an unfaded and clean SMV emblem are critical.

The Farm Safety Association also recommends that you travel at a speed that will allow you to maintain full control at all times, slow down when making turns or rounding curves, observe traffic precautions listed in the operator’s manual, and travel after dark only if absolutely necessary.

Note: The National Ag Safety Database ( has a new, online interactive training session entitled “Road Safety: Sharing the Road with Agricultural Equipment.” To access this and other interactive training sessions, click on “Interactive Training,” then register with your e-mail address and a password of your choice. The training session also includes text-based training and resources.

Barbara Mulhern is a Belleville, Wisconsin-based freelance writer.