Delayed crop harvest increases highway dangers
The delayed harvest of grain crops in Michigan this year has put farm equipment operators and motorists at risk as they attempt to share the roadways in the month with the shortest daylight period of the year.
December is usually a time when farms can put their harvest equipment away for the winter. Not so this year, especially in Central and Northern Michigan as corn and soybean harvest continues and may linger even into the New Year.
A wet spring delayed the planting of most crops. A cool mid-summer, followed by a dry late summer put a number of corn and soybean acres behind normal in maturity. According to Michigan State University Extension field crop educators, the remaining soybeans are not harvesting well because the pods are too wet and corn in the field still carries too much moisture to be economically dried. Compound this with wet soils that are too muddy to enter with equipment and it is understandable that this grain crop will continue to be harvested gradually as conditions allow, well into early winter.
This delayed harvest is increasing the dangers of farm equipment traveling on public roadways and colliding with domestic vehicles. Motorists on the roadways are not expecting to come upon slow moving farm vehicles this time of year. They assume the harvest season is over. More critically, the decreasing daylight hours of December increases the risk of tractors and combines on the roadways in the dark during rush hour. Motorists often do not properly gauge the slower speed of a tractor or other farm implement in the daytime hours and approach them too rapidly. Now add in the early evening darkness and slippery roads covered with ice or snow and it is a recipe for disaster.
Because of the higher potential for profits from grains over the last two years, farmers have been farming land farther away from home. Some farms are traveling 50 miles away to cropland and sometimes they are forced to travel this distance on the roadway with the farm implement, rather than loading it on to a semi-trailer and trailering it. These long distance treks with slow moving vehicles increases the risks with motorists. With the larger farm equipment of today farmers are forced to guide the equipment around mailboxes or guardrails along the roadway causing the equipment to often cross the centerline risking contact with oncoming or passing vehicles.
Motorists need to be aware that this grain harvest will continue for the next few months in Central and Northern Michigan and the farm implements could be on the roads after dark. Orange slow moving vehicle (SMV) signs and flashing lights could mean that a slow moving or parked farm vehicle is ahead along the roadway. Passing this vehicle should be done with extreme caution as the implement may be wider than what can be easily determined from a distance in the dark. Since many farm tractors and combines do not have turn signals nor brake lights, passing from behind has to be done with caution as the implement could be making a left hand turn. If the implement is parked there also is the chance that the driver or others could be on the ground working around the implement in the dark, and may be less visible with the other lights shining from the implement.
Farmers need to equip their implements with proper functional lighting when appropriate while traveling on public roadways one half hour after sunset to one half hour before sunrise and they must always have a SMV sign attached regardless of the time of day. Consult the Michigan Farmers Transportation Guide published by the Michigan State Police in conjunction with Michigan Farm Bureau for details on lighting on page 19 of the guide. They also need to keep these lights, SMV signs and reflective tape clear of dust and other material so they can be clearly seen. When stepping down from the farm implement after dark on a roadway farmers are encouraged to wear vests or other clothing with reflective tape and to carry a light or other device to indicate their presence to passing motorists.