Sharing the road: Education, awareness key to motorist and farmer safety

 A VDOT portable messaging sign at the Orange County Fair warns about the importance of "sharing the road" with farm equipment for the safety of farmers and motorists alike. The Orange County Farm Bureau also staged a mock accident of a tractor and a vehicle to illustrate the dangers both face on rural roadways. 

Farming is a dangerous profession.

But more and more, the hazards of farming are extending beyond the fields and onto area roads.

To that end, the Orange County Farm Bureau and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) are working together to help educate motorists about the dangers of slow-moving agricultural equipment on local roads.

“We have a lot more people coming to our area who aren’t used to driving around farm equipment,” Orange County Farm Bureau President Andy Hutchison said. “It’s a growing danger in our business.”

“Equipment is getting bigger and bigger but roads are not,” Farm Bureau sign committee chairman Ray Matthews said. “And traffic is increasing.”

That creates a dangerous situation for farmers and motorists.

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.

In April, a Bedford County farmer was killed after a tractor-trailer struck his tractor on U.S. 221. Both were heading north when the farmer attempted to make a left turn and was hit by the tractor-trailer attempting to pass in a no-passing zone. Hutchison nearly experienced the same situation in Somerset. He was driving on a narrow road and the vehicle behind him attempted to pass him as he prepared to turn left.

VDOT Communications Manager Lou Hatter confirmed the farmers’ concerns.

“Orange County has a substantial agricultural presence and as the population changes and the county becomes more of a destination, we’re seeing an increasing number of vehicles on the roads.”

Farm equipment tends to catch many of those motorists by surprise, Matthews added. “They don’t seem to understand why we don’t just pull over and let them by.”

Easier said than done.

“We want to be courteous to the motorists. We’d like to pull over, but that’s hard to do with wide equipment that already takes up most of the road,” Matthews continued. “Sometimes there’s just no safe place to get off the road.”

The combination of fast traffic and slow equipment is a threat to both farmer and motorist, Hatter added. “That distance can close pretty fast.”

While there haven’t been any recent accidents in Orange County, Matthews cites a number of close calls and near-misses.

“We want to make people aware of this situation rather than react to some sort of tragedy,” Hatter said.

Education and awareness are the keys. So, signs.

VDOT is working with local farmers to place portable changeable message signs in areas where heightened agricultural activity is occurring. Most motorists have seen these types of signs—mounted on trailers—as they approach special events, alerting them to changes in traffic patterns or dangerous conditions.

“The advantage to these signs is that the message can be tailored to specific circumstances,” Hatter said. “Drivers tend to pay more attention to them rather than permanent signs which tend to fade into the landscape.”

“With these signs, people would know they’re entering an active agriculture area and be alert to that,” Matthews added, noting permanent signs also can be useful, some of which have been installed recently along Route 669 (Marquis Road).

The portable message signs could be placed during spring planting, hay cutting and harvest—or other high-intensity periods during the agricultural calendar.

Hatter encouraged farmers and producers to contact their local VDOT office to request signs for placement.

Meanwhile, VDOT also is considering adding pull-off spots on the Route 522 corridor—a heavily farmed area. But that’s more of a long-term solution to a current concern.

“This would allow farm equipment to safely pull off the highway and allow motorists to safely pass,” Hatter explained. “We’re trying to find ways for motorists and the ag community to coexist safely,” Hatter said.

 “We’re concerned for everyone’s safety—not just the farmer,” Matthews concluded.

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