Be safe, understanding harvest traffic
July 29, 2021
The 2017 Census of Agriculture found over 4.5 million farm vehicles participate in the United States harvest. At 91%, the bulk of that equipment is tractors, followed by combines, forage harvesters, and other self-propelled equipment. Many of those vehicles will share the road with passenger cars at some point during their season.
Non-commercial drivers are often frustrated when delayed by a convoy of tractors, combines, and flagger vehicles. Frustration can have severe consequences if it fogs judgment. In 2018, farm vehicle accidents claimed 98 lives across the country.
The bulk of harvest lasts only a few weeks in our area. These easy tips make sharing the road with farmers easier for drivers and safer for all involved.
Keep an eye out. Farm equipment, including combines, tractors, grain trucks, and equipment attachments like combine headers, may turn onto a road unexpectedly from a nearby field, driveway, or sideroad. Because of the size of the machinery, it may be difficult for operators to see a car on the road.
Slow down. As soon as you spot farm equipment on the road, tap the brakes. Tractors and other heavy machinery tend not to go much faster than 25 miles per hour. It does not take long to catch up and potentially collide with them. These machines are extremely heavy, with combines often weighing 20,000 pounds or more. They are hard to accelerate, hard to stop, and need lots of space to turn.
Stay a safe distance away. More distance means better visibility. A popular rule of thumb for gauging distance: If you can't see their mirrors, they can't see you.
Pass with caution! It's not uncommon for farm equipment to span into the next lane, especially when turning. It can be extremely difficult to see oncoming traffic or obstacles on the road. It may be hard to judge how many pieces of farm equipment are traveling together.
Plan ahead. During harvest, it is wise to leave a few minutes early to be on time, anticipating getting behind equipment on the drive.
There are many laws and regulations governing the movement of farm equipment on public roads. Escort vehicles, commonly known as flaggers or pilot vehicles, are required when farmers move a piece of equipment that exceeds 12 feet 6 inches wide.
When traveling in a convoy, escort vehicles are required at the front and the rear of the group. According to the Washington State Patrol, 500 feet between vehicles are required so cars can pass, and the convoy must pull over and let traffic pass if five or more vehicles are waiting to go around.
Typically, farm equipment is prohibited from utilizing the road during the night. There are exceptions for emergency situations and when daylight is adequate enough for visibility. Proper farm equipment nighttime lighting includes two red tail lamps and two red reflectors.
Equipment more than 10 feet wide requires an "oversized load" sign, visible from the front and back on either the escort vehicle or the implement itself.
A safe, successful harvest requires a little extra attention from all drivers. Plan ahead, leave extra space, and support local farmers!