During harvest season, traffic on country roads greatly increases. Keeping common gravel-road hazards in mind can help reduce potential for a roadway accident.
Even though country road intersections aren’t typically marked with stop signs or yield signs, slowing down and scanning for oncoming traffic is always recommended. During the growing season, tall crops can block visibility, and during harvest, unusually heavy traffic may catch local drivers off guard.
“It’s always wise to drive safely on gravel roads,” John Wilson, retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Educator, says. “Gravel roads are narrower than highways and the shoulders of the road can be soft at times. If it’s been wet, there may be ruts along the road, especially if large farm equipment has recently been on the road.”
Washboards are a common feature of gravel roads. Depending on how severe they are, washboards on a gravel road can quickly cause drivers to lose control of their vehicle.
“A lot of dust is in the air when combines are operating and farm equipment is moving during harvest,” Wilson says. “Depending on the size of some of that equipment, the driver may have to cross over the center line of the road. Keep in mind that, if you’re following the equipment very closely, you may be in a blind spot and the driver may not even realize you’re there.”
At any time of the year, dust clouds caused by traffic on gravel roads can hamper visibility to the point where drivers can’t see where they’re going. If that occurs, slowing down or stopping to allow the dust to resolve is the safest way to proceed. Keeping driving speed at a minimum will also help reduce the volume of dust kicked up by a vehicle.
Large farm equipment travels much slower than the average vehicle, which means it’s always wise for drivers to slow down when approaching equipment, especially when approaching from the rear.
“This is especially true on a highway, where general traffic moves at a much faster speed than farm equipment,” Wilson says. “If you’re traveling at 55mph, it takes five seconds and the length of a football field to slow down and avoid a rear-end collision with slow moving farm equipment that’s traveling at 15mph.”
When a farm equipment operator signals that they’re making a right turn, be aware that they may need to move to the opposite side of the road to negotiate the turn. Never try to pass them as they prepare to turn.
Night-time drivers should take extra precaution when encountering farm equipment on the roadway. Darkness and large equipment reduce the operator’s ability to see oncoming traffic. If a farmer is working after dark and pushing to complete a field or reach a farm site before rain or a storm approaches, they may also be more easily distracted.
Passing farm equipment at any time can be hazardous. Drivers in a regular vehicle can’t see oncoming traffic while they’re behind the equipment. While equipment operators sometimes wave drivers behind them to go ahead and pass, don’t automatically assume that a hand signal from the equipment operator means it’s safe to pass. Move out around them slowly in every case.
“Hilly areas make it especially risky to pass farm equipment,” Wilson says. “In some situations, neither you or the equipment operator can see far enough ahead to make sure it’s safe to pass.”
While following large farm equipment on any road, be advised that they may need to swing out further onto the road if they encounter a bridge, mailbox, or other roadside obstacle on the roadside.
“During harvest, employing all our best traffic safety practices and taking extra precaution around farm equipment will help avoid an accident,” Wilson says.
When farmers move equipment, such as combine heads and grain carts, from field to field, it’s helpful to have a pickup with hazard lights flashing ahead of and/or behind the equipment to help alert motorists that a long or wide load is approaching.
“Most operators are very good about using flashing lights when they move equipment, especially at night,” Wilson says. “An added precaution is the use of an orange SMV (slow moving vehicle) sign on the back of the equipment. Just another way to alert motorists to unusual traffic on the road.”
Many farmers attempt to move to the side of a country road or highway when they know a vehicle behind them wants to pass. Motorists should keep in mind that, if shoulders are especially soft and/or narrow, equipment operators may risk being pulled into the ditch if they crowd the shoulder too much.
“Large farm equipment can quickly tip and rollover if the operator gets too close to the ditch,” Wilson says. “The safest way to navigate a roadway when large farm equipment is present is to be patient and take steps to keep everyone safe.”
Wilson notes that harvest activity always leads to an increase in another traffic hazard: deer. While rutting and hunting season cause deer to move more in November, the loss of habitat and cover once crops are taken out of the fields means deer will be more active while harvest takes place.
“The later we get into October, the more active the deer will be,” Wilson says. “It’s helpful to keep that in mind whether you’re driving along a highway or along a gravel road.”
Avoiding a hurried pace is a key safety practice for farmers. However, for motorists who travel in areas where harvest activity occurs, adopting an attitude of patience and safety first will also help keep all drivers safer.
“Take time to be careful, don’t get into a rush,” Wilson says. “Safe driving practices are important at any time but are especially key for the safety of armers and others traveling country roads during harvest.”