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Here in Lee County, agriculture is big business, and it is time for that business to get going. Tobacco is our number one field crop grown, and it has been growing, out of sight for many of our residents, in greenhouses since February on many farms here in the county. Over the course of the next several weeks, tobacco will be transplanted from the greenhouse to the field with large equipment. All of that equipment has to get from field to field, and most of the time, public roads are the only way for that to happen.
In North Carolina, it is legal for farm equipment to travel on most public roads, the exception being interstates (remember, U.S. 1 and U.S. 421 are NOT interstate highways). This means that passenger cars and slow-moving farm equipment must share the roads. While farm equipment may be on the roadways year round, there is an increased amount this time of year and again in the late summer and fall, corresponding with planting and harvesting season. During planting season, equipment is more likely to be on the road early in the morning and late in the evening as farmers work at all possible hours to get the job done.
Increased equipment on the roads means that it is very likely you will encounter slow moving farm equipment at some point during your daily commute. Most farm equipment travels at less that 25 miles per hour. This means that if you are travelling at 55 mph, you will catch up with that equipment, which may appear far ahead of you, very quickly. Give yourself plenty of time to slow down. As you approach the equipment, pay attention to what the driver of the tractor is doing. Most likely, he or she has noticed that you are behind him. That tractor driver may pull over when there is a safe place to do so and let you pass, but remember, much of this equipment is very large, and it is difficult to make sudden moves. What appears to be a safe location to pull over to you, may not appear that way to the farmer, who knows how well that equipment handles. They need much more room than a typical car or truck to be able to pull entirely off the roadway.
The majority of accidents with passenger cars and farm equipment occur when the equipment driver is attempting to turn left and a passenger car tries to pass at the same time. Many new tractors have turn signals, just like your car, and they will use them to alert you to their intentions. Older tractors may not have these features, so the tractor driver will likely use hand signals to indicate a left turn. Pay close attention to hand signals, don’t confuse a signal to turn with a wave from the farmer to let you know it is safe to pass. Speaking of passing, if you do pass farm equipment, make sure you can do so safely. Oftentimes, equipment is wider than the lane it is traveling in, making it difficult to see around. Before passing, be sure you can confidently see around equipment before initiating the pass. Also, be sure that you can see clearly far enough so that you know you will have the space to pull back into your lane safely after passing. Remember, farm equipment cannot stop or slow down as quickly as an automobile. Again, before beginning the pass, look again to make sure that tractor is not about to make a left turn.
Most of the time, farmers are travelling fairly short distances. Let’s say for a moment that you are on a two-lane road and the speed limit is 55 mph. If you get behind a tractor and slow down to 25 for two miles, it will only delay your trip by a little over 2 and a half minutes. That is less time than it would take to wait for your favorite song to finish if it came on the radio right when you pulled into your parking space at work. In North Carolina, 51 percent of crashes involving farm equipment result in injury or death. Is it worth taking a 50/50 chance with your life or the life of a farmer, who is working to feed you, to get wherever you are going 2 and a half minutes faster? I don’t think so. So slow down, enjoy the ride, and maybe even wave to say thanks to the farmer on the tractor.
Mitch Williams is the Agriculture Agent – Field Crops and Livestock for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.