This spring’s busy agricultural season has barely begun and already this week's fatal collision between a farm tractor and semitanker in Eaton County, Mich., is a harsh reminder for farmers and motorists about the necessity of safely sharing roadways.

"At this stage in the agricultural season, seeing farm equipment on Michigan roads is a new sight for drivers and something they don't expect,” says Craig Anderson, Michigan Farm Bureau farm safety specialist. It's very similar to motorists getting used to seeing school buses out and about again in the fall after a summer hiatus.

“In the case of agriculture and spring planting, drivers should expect farm traffic over the next month or so, and when they see farm implements they need to recognize that the equipment is moving very slow," Anderson says.

The slow-moving vehicle (SMV) emblem, a bright orange triangle framed in red, is meant to warn motorists of a slow-moving vehicle ahead and to approach with caution, but the emblem's meaning is lost on many drivers, notes Anderson, because of its rampant misuse.

SMV signs, which are widely available at retailers unlike most official traffic markers, are frequently used illegally to mark driveway entrances or for other reflective purposes. The only legal use of an SMV emblem is to mark a vehicle that has a maximum potential speed of 25 mph on the highway, an implement of husbandry, a farm tractor or special mobile equipment.

All new farm equipment manufactured in the United States after Jan. 1, of this year comes standard with special safety features, including flashing amber lights. However, the majority of farm equipment used in Michigan and across the country was manufactured prior to that date, Anderson says. So until the older equipment is retired and replaced with newer models, motorists and farmers share the burden of making sure that the SMV sign retains its safety purpose. 

For their part, farmers should make sure that all slow-moving farm implements are properly marked with SMV signs and red reflective material on the outboard edges.

Now's the time for producers to double-check that they are doing everything in their power to prevent mishaps, suggests Anderson.

Farmers can extend their lives by wearing seatbelts and making sure that farm implements are equipped with seatbelts and Roll Over Protective Structures (ROPS). Anderson said there is a retrofit ROPS available at reasonable cost for virtually every tractor model made, and many dealers provide low-cost installation.

"We know of no agricultural fatality that has occurred to a farmer where the ROPS was present and the seat belt was worn," he said. "This is true in Michigan and nationwide."

Re-assessing tractor safety stands to benefit every farmer — even the most seasoned professionals, says Anderson.

"Eighty percent of all U.S. tractor rollover fatalities involve experienced or very experienced tractor operators," he says, adding that the majority of farm-related deaths in 2005 occurred to individuals aged 40 to 60.

Source: Michigan Farm Bureau