Road safety — Motorists cautioned to be alert and drive safely while farm machinery is on the road

Road construction crews aren’t the only ones to be aware of this summer as Oregonians venture into the country on vacations and day trips. It’s also the peak season when slow-moving farm machinery like trucks, tractors and combines use the same roadway. From the more congested areas of the Willamette Valley to the wide open spaces of eastern Oregon, advice to the smart driver is the same: slow down and be patient and alert.

“There are more drivers on the road this time of year and there is more road construction,” said Katy Coba, director of the Oregon Department of Agri­culture. “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.”

Farmers typically will try to avoid using high travel roads, but sometimes that is impossible and they can legally travel the public roads as long as they display a triangular orange and red slow moving vehicle (SMV) sign on the equipment. Coba was raised on a Umatilla County wheat ranch in northeastern Oregon. Often­times, she and her family had to ply local roads with combines.

“In a good situation, that involved gravel roads without much traffic,” she said. “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 (pilot vehicles) in front of and behind the combine and always tried to pull off the side of the road when traffic was coming.”

As urban development continues to creep into agricultural areas, there is an increased risk of motor vehicle accidents involving farmers and motorists. In 2012, the Oregon Depart­ment of Transportation reported 33 accidents involving vehicles and farm equipment. That’s up from 31 incidents in 2011 and the numbers are increasing, ODOT officials said, which is prompting organizations like the Oregon Farm Bureau (OFB) and Oregon Women for Agriculture (OWA) to mount a campaign to educate the parties on both sides of the road on being safe.

Motorists confronted with a SMV sign are required to slow down immediately. Unfor­tunately, some motor­ists don’t and the results can be catastrophic. Earlier this summer a Polk County man crashed into a tractor pulling a large hay rake.

“The driver was going too fast and rear-ended (the tractor) in broad daylight,” said Ray Steele, president of Polk County Farm Bureau. “Thank­fully, I don’t be­lieve anyone was hurt. But the hay rake was totaled.”

Nearly all the accidents involving farm vehicles the past few years have taken place on dry pavement in the light of day. Perhaps, officials said, the triangular, red-and-orange SMV sign is losing its significance.

“People are using the SMV sign as a generic reflector to mark driveway en­trances, fences and mail box posts, and its meaning has diminished,” said Steele, who raises cattle and hay. “I don’t think they realize that the signs are supposed to be used only on slow-moving vehicles.”

The SMV sign is, by law, dedicated to identify equipment designed to travel at speeds of no more than 25 mph and cannot legally be used as a reflector on permanent, stationary objects. To help restore the sign’s importance for public safety, the Legislature passed a new law this year that will make improper use of the SMV sign a Class C traffic violation with an expected $160 fine.

The OWA has launched a radio campaign stressing farm safety on the road, with radio ads running in seven cities across the state. OWA has also provided double-sided signs which read “Please drive carefully, farm machinery on roadways” that can be found in various parts of the state.

ODOT, OFD and the OWA dispensed a few tips to help motorists be safer on the roads:

- 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.

- 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.

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