Imagine trying to drive a tractor or pull a piece of equipment from one parcel to another along busy Fredericksburg-area roads when motorists seem to be in a constant hurry.
Farm machinery can’t go more than 20 or 30 mph—tops—and sharing winding back roads or crowded highways with vehicles going two or three times faster may be an accident waiting to happen.
“It’s not a matter of if, but when,” Stafford County farmer Glenn Dye said about concerns of being hit by drivers, either distracted by their phones or traveling too fast to stop in time. “That’s why I want to educate people about why we can’t get out of the road, why we’re going slow and how we’re just trying to get from point A to point B safely.”
He’s a member of Virginia Farm Bureau Federation’s Young Farmers Committee and has pushed for safety measures for slow-moving vehicles in recent years.
The need hit home recently when a 75-year-old Bedford County farmer was killed while driving his tractor on roads he’d traveled thousands of times. Ralph “Eddie” Reynolds was turning left when a tractor–trailer came up behind him, attempted to pass in a no-passing zone and ran over him.
It was the first highway fatality involving farm machinery this year, and the Virginia Farm Bureau is “imploring the public to please, please pay extra attention to tractors on the roadways,” said Kyle Sturgis, chairman of the young farmers group. He farms with his family on the Eastern Shore and is asking motorists to “slow down and be patient with farm equipment.”
Nationwide, about 15,000 farm vehicles are involved in highway crashes a year, according to the National Safety Council. Two-thirds of accidents are rear-end collisions, and those killed are usually the tractor operators.
Ralph Sutton works fields from the Ferry Farm Walmart along State Route 3 east into King George County, and says he does everything he can to stay safe when he moves equipment. He often has a vehicle in front of the tractor with blinking lights and a driver waving to oncoming traffic to be sure the slow-moving vehicle is seen.
“It’s getting worse everyday,” he said. “There’s always plenty of traffic, and sometimes we have to wait 5 or 10 minutes before we can pull out into the road.”
Carlton Beach, who farms in Stafford and Fauquier, regularly pulls a long wagon as he hauls hay on winding, two-lane roads. He recently had a particularly antsy driver behind him, trying to pass at every opportunity.
When the driver finally zipped by, he gave the farmer some “gestures that were not very friendly.”
Beach found it befuddling; he was just trying to do his job. Like other farmers in particularly busy areas, he already stays off the road between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. daily, just because of the traffic.
“You have to move a tractor and piece of equipment occasionally,” he said, reminding fellow drivers that farming isn’t a civilization gone with the wind. “There’s still a few of us around.”
Ratcheting up risk
A statewide trend shows that farm parcels are more spread out because farmers are having to go farther to find rental land, said Dana Fisher, a field service director with the Farm Bureau. That puts more slow-moving equipment on the road longer, ratcheting up the risk to farmers and the drivers around them.
“Fredericksburg is seeing a lot of that,” Fisher said, “and more and more folks in the area are not as familiar with farm equipment. When they’re traveling 45 or 55 miles an hour, and a piece of equipment is going 20 to 25 miles an hour, the closing distance is pretty quick.”
Machinery is getting bigger—and wider—all the time so farmers can work all their farm fields faster.
Fisher wanted to remind drivers that spring is planting season, and farmers have a limited window to get corn and other crops in the ground. Frequent rainfall makes the schedule even trickier, so they’ve got to make hay while the sun shines.
Beach believes that social media is the answer to keeping farmers safe on the road with other drivers. Given how many people he sees “wheeling through their phone” while behind the wheel, maybe they’d see a message about farm equipment and be more mindful of it.
The Farm Bureau worked with the Virginia Department of Education and Department of Motor Vehicles to produce a training video for young drivers. Produced by Drive Smart Virginia, which aims to reduce all types of distracted driving, the video is available online at bit.ly/dsv_smv.