Traffic crashes involving combines and tractors would decrease by more than half if state policies required more lighting and reflection on those farm vehicles, according to a new study from the University of Iowa College of Public Health.
The study’s release coincides with the harvest season, the most dangerous time of the year for such accidents, when large, slow-moving farm equipment is often on the roads at dusk and after dark, said Marizen Ramirez, lead author of the study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
“Many drivers misjudge the time and distance it takes to slow down when they approach a farm vehicle from behind. Better lighting would give them more time,” said Ramirez, who recently transferred to the University of Minnesota.
Iowa and the eight other Corn Belt states in the study report an average of about 1,000 farm vehicle-related crashes each year, many of which cause severe or fatal injuries.
“More often than not, the driver of the passenger vehicle causes the crash,” said study co-author Corinne Peek-Asa, a professor in UI’s Great Plains Center for Agricultural Health.
Occupants of the passenger vehicle, she said, are about five times more likely to be injured than the driver of the farm vehicle.
Difficulties in seeing farm vehicles and judging their speed can cause drivers of passenger vehicles to rear-end farm vehicles because they can’t slow down in time or to crash into something else when they impatiently try to pass the farm vehicle at an inopportune time, Peek-Asa said.
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The study compared rates of farm equipment–related crashes in the context of the states’ policies on lighting and marking vehicles.
Specifically, the researchers compared state laws with standards recommended by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, which prescribes certain numbers of headlights, taillights, turn signals and other exterior lighting visible to other drivers, as well as the number and size of reflective markers.
Of the nine states analyzed, Illinois had the highest compliance with the engineers’ recommended standards, 69 percent, and Kansas, with 62 percent, was second.
Only Missouri (12 percent) and Wisconsin (36 percent) had lower compliance scores than Iowa (40 percent). The other four states are Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Iowa law requires that all self-propelled farm implements be equipped with at least one steady white headlamp and one steady red taillamp, each visible from a distance of 500 feet.
If they are operated on a road at a speed of 35 mph or slower, they must also display an amber flashing light visible from the rear.
Iowa law also requires farm vehicles to have “lighted white, red or amber lamps” from sunset to sunrise or during other low visibility conditions. All self-propelled farm vehicles and towed equipment, when operated on a highway at speed of 35 mph or slower, must also be equipped with a reflective slow-moving vehicle emblem.
Ramirez said Iowa law is much less stringent than the engineers’ recommended standards, which include two headlights, two taillights, turn signals and lights defining the outer dimensions of the farm vehicle.
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Using data from 2005 to 2010, the researchers estimate the number of accidents annually would be cut 60 percent, from 972 to 385, if states implemented policies that increased compliance with the engineers’ standards by 25 percent over current policies.
In Iowa, the study estimates crashes would decrease from an annual average of 164 to 65, or by 60 percent.
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