Harvest season time to be alert

OK, so you can't say that there's a nip in the air. Southwest Georgia, after all, hangs on doggedly each year for every bit of warm weather that it can.

But the growing season for Georgia's biggest row crops -- cotton and peanuts -- has turned into the harvesting season, which is especially important on our end of the state where agriculture is the lifeblood of the region. That means communities all across Southwest Georgia will be launching into annual celebrations of rural living, of which farming will most often be on center stage.

It also means that motorists and farm equipment operators alike need to make sure they're keeping an eye out for others on roads, particularly on rural roadways, where there will be a large number of slow-moving vehicles operating.

Last year was far from a banner year in this respect. State officials say that crashes involving farm equipment rose by a third in 2011 compared to 2010. Out of those 401 reported accidents last year, there were five fatalities and others in which people were seriously injured.

That's prompted Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black and Harris Blackwood, director of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety, to launching the 2nd annual "Improving Georgia's Yield Behind the Wheel" campaign.

"As our farmers are working to bring in this year's crop, we want to remind Georgians of farmers' increased presence on the roadways," Black said. "While traveling, we urge you to be mindful of tractors and other farm equipment sharing the same roadways and to take extra precaution."

"Last year, our efforts created more awareness of the dangers on Georgia's rural roadways, but clearly, we've got more work to do when it comes to protecting our people and our state's biggest industry," Blackwood said. "Our goal is to make sure everyone gets home safely, whether or not they get there in a combine or a convertible."

They say there are two ways to prevent these sorts of wrecks -- be patient and be alert.

A car traveling at 55 mph will cover a lot of roadway in a short amount of time when it comes up behind a tractor traveling at less than half that speed. The idea that the tractor driver knows your coming up behind him and will move over to the side before you get there can be badly flawed reasoning. Even if the farm equipment operator see the car, Georgia Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall notes, the shoulder may be too wet, soft or steep for the equipment to move over.

"Nothing is more enjoyable than a fun ride on a country road, but approaching a slow-moving farm vehicle at a high rate of speed could prove deadly," Blackwood said. "Slowing down to 20 mph for two miles should only add six minutes to a commute. That's about the time it takes to sit at two stop lights, and it's just a drop in the bucket to the time you could lose in a crash on a rural road."

Tips that state officials have for motorists include:

  • When passing a farm vehicle, a driver should not move into the oncoming traffic lane unless there is good visibility ahead of the farm vehicle that will be passed;
  • Do not assume that a farm vehicle that pulls to the right side of the road is going to turn right or is letting you pass. It could be executing a wide left turn.

Tips for farm equipment operators on the road:

  • If the vehicle travels at less than 25 mph, make sure it has the required triangular slow-moving vehicle warning reflector and that the reflector is in good condition;
  • Mark the edges of tractors and machines with reflective tape and reflectors. Consider installing retrofit lighting on older machinery to increase visibility;
  • Turn on lights, but turn off any spotlights;
  • Avoid the highway during rush hour and bad weather. Do not drive before sunrise or after sunset;
  • Installing mirrors on equipment to enable the operator to better see motorists.

This fall, a little extra caution and some patience on the highway will go a long way toward preventing wrecks. Autumn should be a time of celebration and festivals, not a time to suffer a preventable injury or mourn an unnecessary death.