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Farming season signals increased safety concerns
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- "Gentlemen, start your engines." These four words that provide NASCAR fans with an adrenaline rush should also invoke caution flags for Mississippians driving in rural areas where tractors are taking to the fields.
Herb Willcutt, safety specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said all drivers share responsibility for safe travel on the state's highways.
"Beginning with planting season and lasting throughout fall harvest, drivers are likely to encounter more farm equipment on highways, especially in rural areas," Willcutt said.
Farmers first need to do their part to protect themselves and others by making sure their equipment is properly maintained and all protective shields, shaft covers, and guards over the chains and belts are in the appropriate places. Flashing lights on top of tractors should be operating and the triangular slow-moving vehicle emblem should be clearly visible even in daylight hours.
"Mostly, all drivers need to be courteous. Farmers should watch for places where they can safely pull off the road and allow faster traffic to pass. Other drivers need to be patient and slow down when approaching or passing farm vehicles," Willcutt said.
Wide equipment may periodically have to swerve toward the center of the road to avoid road signs or bridges.
"Drivers during the early mornings and late afternoons tend to be at higher risk because that is the time more farm traffic is on the highway. Vision problems when the sun is low on the horizon can also make it hard to see slower traffic until you are right on it," Willcutt said.
Another basic tractor safety measure is the importance of wearing safety belts at all times, even in enclosed cabs or on vehicles with rollover protection systems. Passengers are significantly more at risk because tractors are not built for more than the driver. Passengers, especially children, are often unprepared for sudden bumps or movement changes.
Willcutt encourages drivers to watch for overhead wires, limbs and obstructions.
The danger is not only on the highways, but also at work sites when people are on the ground near tractors and equipment.
"Workers need to wear proper clothing when working with equipment. Many accidents occur when loose-fitting sleeves become caught in moving machinery," Willcutt said.
"Never leave machinery parked and running unattended, especially if children are present," he said. "Never attempt to board a moving tractor. It will stop eventually, and the risk of injury is far greater to a person than to the tractor or anything it will hit."
Willcutt said Mississippi averages 13 tractor-related deaths each year.
Steve Olenchock, senior scientist with agricultural research at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, spoke at a recent Health and Safety Summit in Jackson. He said 730 deaths are reported annually in agriculture nationwide, primarily involving tractor accidents.
"The number of deaths to children decreased from 181 between 1982 and 1989 to just 103 between 1990 and 1996. The problem is that (deaths from farming accidents) do not produce the same outrage you would hear if that number died nationwide working in a (fast-food) restaurant," Olenchock said. "We need to increase our efforts to protect children from farming accidents."