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Farmers, motorists’ speeds don’t always mix, safety experts say

Andy Bell says his first reaction when a truck pulling a load of lumber plowed into his tractor and sprayer on a busy highway near Bainbridge, Ga., was surprise. His second: Gratitude.

Bell, who farms cotton, peanuts and other crops near Climax in southwest Georgia, says he was grateful he was wearing a seat belt while driving the tractor and spray rig he was pulling to another field a short distance away.

“I always wear a seat belt, whether I’m in my truck or riding a tractor or picker or combine,” said Bell. “But on that particular day, I was blessed because I’m convinced I would have been knocked off the tractor if I hadn’t been wearing one.”

Bell was speaking at a press briefing held by Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black and Harris Blackwood, director of the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, at this year’s Sunbelt Expo. Bell was recounting what happened to him at 5 p.m. on a bright, sunny day in June several years ago.

“I had all my safety lights, my slow-moving vehicle warning sign, and that still wasn’t enough,” said Bell, who was driving on Highway 84 near Bainbridge in Georgia. “I had a guy run into the back of my sprayer, and I was blessed that day that I had my seat belt on.

Motorists driving distracted

“I usually wear it when I’m on a major highway, and I was able to walk away because I had the seat belt on because it definitely would have knocked me off the tractor. It totaled the tractor and the sprayer. I was blessed.”

Although the 2016 harvest is well underway, growers are approaching the time when they’re rushing to finish before the days begin getting shorter and the weather turns more adverse to field operations. Motorists, meanwhile, often are driving distracted or are not aware how much slower farm tractors move than automobiles.”

Blackwood says this can be a recipe for disaster in any farming area. “We've had 14 farm-related traffic deaths in Georgia so far this year, which emphasizes the need for increased awareness as finish the harvest.”

As a minimum, growers should always wear their seat belts on tractors and other farm equipment. But they should take safety a step farther and use magnetic mounted LED lights to warn motorists they’re on the highway.

“We’re not trying to pass a law, but I just would not be on a major highway with a piece of equipment without that seat belt,” he said in an interview. “You know that tractor is going to win the physics contest, but it may be the driver will be ejected. We’ve had 14 people killed in farm-related accidents this year. People are distracted. On the other side of the house, we’re telling people to put down those phones and pay attention to the road.”

Losing key personnel

These days motorists are traveling at 70 mph and faster, he noted, “That tractor at its best is going 25 mph. When they collide, the result is often fatal or, worse, someone is injured for life, and they’re unable to continue their farming operation.”

Bell, Blackwood and Black have been working for six years to get the message out that seat belts on farm equipment – as well as in passenger vehicles – can save lives. As an indication of the struggle they face, the 2016 highway death toll in Georgia rose from 1,175 to 1,200 fatalities the three days Sunbelt Expo was being held in Moultrie, Ga.

“The other thing we want to tell farmers is that if you’re hauling a peanut wagon or something like that you can buy magnetic-mounted lights. They’re LED lights that flash; they use regular batteries,” he said. “They put out a pretty good light, and it might be just the signal that will help a car see you before they run up on your wagon or trailer, hauling your harvest to market.”

The number of people who have died in farm and construction vehicle crashes in Georgia in the first nine months of 2016 is already three times more than were killed in similar crashes in all of 2015, according to officials.

“These accidents are 100 percent avoidable,” said Commissioner Black. “But it takes the farming community and the driving public working together to ensure our farm workers can do their jobs of getting food on our tables safely. We must all pay attention and contribute for a safe and prosperous harvest season.”

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