Text Size:   A+ A- A   •   Text Only
Site Image
Summer traffic includes motorists and farmers

Motorists are 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 get behind the wheel. It’s also the season for slow moving farm machinery– including trucks, tractors, and combines– to occasionally use the same roadway. Whether the sharing of the traffic lanes takes place in the more congested Willamette Valley or the wide open spaces of Eastern Oregon, the general advice is the same– be on the alert, slow down, and have patience.

“There are more drivers on the road this time of year and there is more road construction,” says 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.”

It is legal for farmers to drive equipment on public roads. Farmers normally try to avoid using higher traveled roads as much as possible, but sometimes that just can’t happen.

Coba was raised on a Umatilla County wheat ranch. Many times, combines needed to travel down a road to get to another field.

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

With urban development moving closer to agricultural operations in recent years, there is an increased risk of motor vehicle accidents involving farmers and non-farmers.

Statistics provided by the Oregon Department of Transportation indicate 33 vehicle accidents involving farm equipment in 2012 and 31 in 2011. Unfortunately, the accident numbers are trending up, which is prompting a number of organizations to spread the word about summer traffic safety. The Oregon Farm Bureau (OFB) and Oregon Women for Agriculture (OWA) have been very active the past few years in educating the public and the farm community on how to be safe on the road.

Just as more urban motorists are on rural roads, farmers are busy planting, cultivating, and harvesting the many crops of the season. Sometimes this requires a tractor, combine, or farm truck to be out on the road, driving between 10 and 25 miles per hour to get from farm to field. This is perfectly lawful as long as the equipment has a clearly visible triangular, orange-and-red Slow Moving Vehicle (SMV) sign on its back end. That sign is a warning for drivers to slow down immediately.

Already this summer, a motorist in Polk County did just the opposite and crashed into a tractor pulling a large hay rake.

“The driver was going too fast and rear-ended it in broad daylight,” says 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. It’s possible that 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,” says 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.”

Just as stop signs cannot be used for personal use, the SMV sign is, by law, dedicated to identify equipment designed to travel at speeds of no more than 25 miles per hour. It is not to be used as a reflector on permanent, stationary objects. To help restore the sign’s importance for public safety, the 2013 Oregon Legislature passed a new law, backed by Oregon Farm Bureau, that will make improper use of the SMV sign a Class C traffic violation with an expected $160 fine.

When it comes to traffic safety, rural Oregon has a lot in common with the populated areas of the state. Jana Kittredge and her husband farm in Lake County, and make sure their employees are on the alert for motorists while transporting farm equipment.

“We live in a very sparse area, but I do know of a few fatalities in recent years caused by careless motorists,” says Kittredge, who also serves as Public Outreach/Relations Chair for Oregon Women for Agriculture. “We make sure all of our equipment has slow moving vehicle signs and abide by all the rules, including using our flashers when transporting equipment on public roadways. When we have a wider load, we have pilot vehicles. When we are moving cattle on public roadways, we also have pilot vehicles. “

OWA has launched a radio campaign stressing farm safety on the road, with radio ads running in Salem, Eugene, Medford, Coos Bay, The Dalles, Pendleton, and Bend. 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.

Among the advice for general motorists:

  • 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.

With common sense and caution, this summer can be travel-safe for everyone on and off the farm.

For more information, contact Bruce Pokarney at (503) 986-4559.

PDF version

Audio version