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Editorial: Don't turn harvest into a road tragedy

Midwest gold is flowing. We refer to corn.

Farmers and custom-combine professionals are hard at work harvesting 2017's bounty. This means motorists need to be alert for large, slow-moving ag vehicles transporting crops to markets, grain elevators, processing plants, river barges and railroad yards. The risk is especially great on rural, two-lane roads like those in Goodhue, Pierce and surrounding counties.

Several related factors make encounters between standard vehicles traveling 55 mph or greater with farm equipment going perhaps 25 mph risky.

The first and obvious one is speed. A motor vehicle coming up behind a farm implement has only seconds to stop before a crash may occur. The solution: Drivers should not speed and they should anticipate a tractor or combine around every bend and over every hill this time of year.

A second factor is distracted driving. Any type of distracted driving — talking on cellphone, checking a text message, reaching down to eat your lunch, or simply being tired or letting your mind drift elsewhere — can make stopping in time almost impossible when reaction time is cut in half (at best).

The third factor is a matter of physics. Because farm equipment is large and heavy, operators themselves need extra time to accelerate, slow down, stop or turn.

No. 4: Size matters. These cumbersome tractors and combines sometimes cross over the center line or extend into the shoulder. You might think you have enough room to pass only to find yourself clipping a huge tire.

In addition, some farm vehicles have large blind spots, making it difficult for operators to see vehicles approaching from behind and even ahead.

The reality is that from 2011 to 2015, Minnesota experienced 688 crashes involving farm vehicles — with 23 fatalities and 348 injuries.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation reported 345 traffic crashes involving farm machines that resulted in 171 injuries and, fortunately, just three fatalities in 2013 and 2014. From approximately 2005 to 2015, however, there were 1,400 such traffic crashes that caused 708 injuries and 25 fatalities.

As a result, Wisconsin in 2014 made it illegal for a motorist to pass farm machinery in a no-passing zone. Motorists also should remember the law prohibits them from passing on the shoulder.

So what should you do when getting behind the wheel this autumn?

• Watch for debris dropped by trucks.

• When approaching farm equipment, slow down and use caution. Put additional space between your vehicle and the farm equipment ahead.

• Assume the equipment operator cannot see you.

• Be patient and wait for a safe place to pass.

• Pass farm machinery only in a passing zone and when it is safe to pass.

• Do not pass on the shoulder.

• Wear seat belts.

• Drive with headlights on at all times.

• Be aware that farm equipment slowing down may be making a left turn — not trying to make it easier for you to pass.

• Exercise caution around blind curves and intersections.

• Be extra careful at night.

• Be aware of increased and slowing traffic at farm market and tourism locations.

We have entered a truly golden time of year. Keep it that way and don't become a road statistic.