Think there’s no way a massive piece of farm machinery travelling down a highway can be completely unseen?
Consider this story.
On the morning of Jan. 4 of this year, a 72-year-old man died when a semi-trailer hit the tractor he was driving on a two-lane highway in southern Manitoba. The driver of the semi told police he did not see the tractor. RCMP said it did not suspect speed or intoxication as factors in the incident.
That sort of tragedy is “unnerving,” said Dan Trottier, a Red Deer-based safety advocate with AgSMART and a farm equipment operator himself.
“We’re doing everything we can to be visible,” he said. “We’ve done our checks; we’ve gone around the equipment and we’ve got the proper signage in place.
“It’s a huge piece of equipment that should be seen but we never know what oncoming traffic is doing. Is it attentive to the situation?”
In an ideal world, producers would be able to completely avoid using highways for machinery transport. But many rural roads aren’t suitable for long hauls and because more farms are spread out these days, they’re regularly moving equipment to and from distant fields.
So if producers can’t avoid highways, Trottier recommends travelling during daylight hours. If that’s not possible, he recommends shutting off tractor field lights during evening moves and using road lights exclusively.
“If you have all your field lights on after dark, that might blind drivers to the dimensions of your equipment. We have extra-dimensional pieces of equipment that are going down the road wider than the common vehicle. People don’t usually plan for that kind of difference if they can’t see it.”
By law, operators must have clearly visible slow-moving vehicle signs on the rear of tractors and other farm equipment. As well, there must be continuously lit warning lights at the widest part of the vehicle for tractors or self-propelled implements wider than 2.6 metres. At least two red tail lamps should be used. The general rule of thumb for lighting is that it must be plainly visible at least 150 metres to the rear of the vehicle.
Also, operators should keep their equipment as far to the right as safely possible in order to allow motorists to pass without incident, although some farm implements may still encroach on the centre line.
Warning flags and pilot drivers
One of the biggest challenges for motorists is knowing how long a train of seeding equipment is.
“During seeding the tractor can be hauling the seeding implement with multiple tanks behind that assembly,” said Trottier. “Even though they’re all packed up, that can be quite a long piece of equipment.
“Sometimes (motorists) can’t see down the road when they’re following large pieces of equipment and by the time they pull out and think they can pass they may not judge oncoming traffic well enough to see they’re in trouble.”
Warning flags help define the outside dimensions of equipment. Producers sometimes avoid using these because they’re not mandatory and are difficult to maintain, but they can make a big difference, he said.
“When you approach equipment at high speed you might not have a full appreciation for the outer limits of those cultivator shanks or whatever it is that’s sticking outside of the main frame of the unit. A flag outside of those helps raise that awareness. I’m aware of some accidents where people have actually run into the outside frame and caught the shank of a cultivator.”
A provincial guide recommends placing 16-inch-square warning flags at the widest part of the vehicle so they are visible to a driver approaching from in front or from the rear.
But like signage, a warning flag is only effective if the approaching driver sees it.
“Probably the best thing you can do — if you can afford it — is to have a hired hand or someone else following that piece of equipment in a separate vehicle down the road,” said Trottier. “This will allow approaching traffic more time to recognize the danger ahead.”
One of the most common accidents occurs when operators are turning on and off roads, he said. Obviously, signal lights are your primary tool in these situations, but they don’t communicate the message in some cases.
“We may have our signal light on but with large equipment, drivers may not see the signals. So if we have to turn left off of a highway, for example, we have obviously cleared oncoming traffic ahead of us but someone from behind could be travelling at high speeds to pass us and can cause a collision.”
The only thing operators can do in these cases is be diligent, said Trottier.
“For us as operators there’s not a whole lot we can do other than double-check, check again and then proceed safely.”