Sharing the road during fall harvest season

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Fall harvest season is underway throughout the state and will continue for the next couple of months. It’s a time of the year when motorists and farmers will be sharing roadways more frequently.

It’s legal to drive farm machinery on public roads and it’s often the only way farmers can get from field to field. The combination of slow traveling farm equipment and faster motor vehicles means the time before the two meet can be seconds.

Cheryl Skjolaas, University of Wisconsin-Extension agricultural safety specialist, explains there are two common types of crashes between motor vehicles and farm implements. The first type involves the farm implement making a left hand turn as the motorist goes to pass the implement. The second common crash type involves the motorist rear ending the farm implement.

Skjolaas explains that motorists need to understand that farm equipment is not very maneuverable. Its size makes it hard to move over quickly and it will take longer for it to turn into driveways or intersection. It is also difficult for the farm implement operator to see other vehicles that are following or passing farm equipment.

The speed difference between a farm implement and a motor vehicle is the second key factor in crashes. Most farm equipment is operating at speeds under 25 mph. A motor vehicle coming up behind a farm implement has only seconds to stop before a crash may occur. Any type of distracted driving – talking on cellphone, checking a text message, being tired- can make stopping without a crash almost impossible.

“It’s important to be alert and remember that these farm implements don’t behave like cars and pick-up trucks when it comes to speed, turning or braking,” she said.

Slower speeds mean that motorists are going to be tempted to pass farm implements. Skjolaas reminds motorists that it is illegal to pass a farm implement or an agricultural commercial motor vehicle in a no passing zone. A motorist always has the responsibility to make sure that there’s a safe passing distance; making the decision to pass is difficult with farm implements. A motorist needs to be looking ahead for other vehicles but also for driveways into farms or fields, intersections and road structures that may cause the farm implement operator to change road position.

Recent rains have damaged roadways and road shoulders throughout the state, so it may be necessary for farm equipment to travel on the roadway because washed out shoulders and wet ditches may cause machinery to overturn. While farm equipment is required to share the road and when meeting on-coming traffic operate on their half of the roadway, oncoming motorists can make passing safer by slowing down or giving the farm machinery a chance to move over.

Wet field conditions also mean that truck tractors and trailers (semi-trucks) used for hauling grains from field may be parked using the right-of-way.


Skjolaas offered some tips and reminders for motorists during the fall harvest season:

  • Look for lighting and marking on the farm implements. Farm machinery that usually travels less than 25 miles per hour (mph) is required to display a ‘slow moving vehicle’ or SMV emblem on the back. It is an orange and red triangle visible to the rear on either the left hand side of the tractor or towing implement or the rear most towed vehicle. This is a key marking that a driver is approaching a farm implement.
  • Keep a safe distance back. The farm vehicle operator may not be able to see around the equipment, so don’t assume that the operator knows you are approaching. Similar to semi-trucks, many use large extended mirrors. When a driver follows too closely, the vehicle isn’t visible to the farm equipment operator.
  • Check for turn signals. On farm tractors or self-propelled machines like combines, the flashing lights are also turn signals. When following slow moving machines for a distance, it is easy to miss that operator has signaled for a turn. Or watch for the operator to use a hand signal when signal lights are not present.
  • During hours of darkness and low light situations when visibility is less than 500 feet such as when foggy or raining, everyone should have headlights on.
  • Farm implements may be traveling on roads where they are normally not expected For example, farmers may use local streets or highways to transport grain to storage facilities.
  • A road sign to watch for is a yellow and black warning sign with the symbol of a farmer driving a tractor. These signs are within 500 feet of a driveway to alert motorists of a farm or field drive with an obstructed view such as on a hill or around a curve.

Source: University of Wisconsin-Extension


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  1. This article is important for farmers to have tractors, combines and equipment marked and identified with proper emblems recognizing that they are traveling slower on the roads and highways. Drives of vehicles need to be mindful of traffic concerns.


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