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Law enforcement and highway officials team up with farmers' advocacy groups to urge caution

Country roads in northern Marion County have become increasingly dangerous in recent years, and the riskiest season on those roads is summer.

Agriculture advocates teamed up with Marion County Sheriff's Office and Oregon Department of Transportation to hold a press conference June 20 at Pearmine Farms in rural Gervais to herald that issue.

The reason the roads have become more dangerous is because they've seen increased traffic, and much of that traffic is non-local commuters who drive the routes as if they are main-artery state highways or freeways. They are not.

The reason road risks increase in the summer is because more farm vehicles are using those roads to get from field to field or to move commodities.

"It is an extremely busy time of the year for farmers, and particularly in this part of the state, and I think that underscores just how important this topic is," Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Alexis Taylor said. "Today we are asking the public to please use patience, caution and courtesy when encountering moving farm equipment on the road."

The words patience, caution and courtesy peppered every presentation in the conference.

Taylor stressed that farm vehicles normally travel more slowly and make turns into fields often unanticipated by faster-moving drivers.

"Taking a minute to be patient and use caution can actually save lives," Taylor said, noting that farming is one of the most dangerous professions per the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, and operating farm equipment on rural roads is a part of that peril.

No one is more aware of that than Oregon Farm Bureau member Molly McCargar of Gervais, a fourth-generation farmer and co-host of the safety conference.

"This topic has become very important to us, especially over the last few years it has become evident," McCargar said. "It really hit home five years ago when a neighbor of ours, Scott Miller, was killed after being rear ended on his tractor about two miles from here, driving down French Prairie Road."

The shock and grief of the incident sparked McCargar and other area farmers to take hold of the issue. She said nearly every neighboring farmer she knows has described close calls or accidents due to the increased traffic.

"In the past 12 months there have been 12 fatalities on Marion County (rural roads)," McCargar stressed "And that's 12 too many.

"At the end of the day, I want to be able to return home to my family," she said. "And I'd like our employees to be able to return home to their families."

McCargar emphasized that rural roads are designed to get commodities to the market, they aren't designed for heavy traffic or to be used as high-speed routes.

ODOT spokesman Lou Torres said the fatal crash involving Miller is a clear example; the motorist was traveling too fast and could not slow down when came up behind the tractor.

Torres collected statewide data from 2013-17 that show 186 crashes involving farm equipment, causing 126 injuries and several fatalities.

"We've seen a pretty steady increase (in crashes) over that five year period," Torres said. "I don't have the 2018 numbers, but I wouldn't be shocked if they continued that trend."

The road-safety advocates said light of that, Oregon Legislature is poised to pass HB 3213, which will create a pilot program to allow local governments to establish safety corridors on county roads.

The bill was passed unanimously by both the House and Senate and has moved to Gov. Kate Brown's desk.

"I was proud to introduce House Bill 3213, the Rural Oregon Achieving Driving Safety (ROADS) Act, this session," said Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis. "This bill is going to provide a tool for local law enforcement, counties, and communities to ensure that our county roads and farm roads are safe for tractors and farm equipment, and safe for our rural communities that want to get to and from home safely,"

In the meantime, raising awareness and emphasizing safety are on the forefront.

"The lack of roadway safety is very scary, and often all-too-deadly scenario," said OFB member Brenda Frketich, a third-generation farmer from St. Paul. "My hope is that raising awareness around road safety and agriculture and on these county roads ultimately will lead to lives that are saved."

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