If you have never heard of “Rural Roads Safety Week” it’s probably because you don’t live in Pennsylvania.

While the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and the Pennsylvania Governor have teamed up to promote rural safety April 15-21, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) reminds us that six out of 10 (or 57 percent) of highway deaths across the U.S. occur on roads that it considers rural, and a large percentage of those involve farmers and agricultural equipment.

But a University of Minnesota study indicates most Americans don't seem to understand the risk on rural highways. For instance, 69 percent of Americans responded to the recent study indicating that they felt safe on multilane freeways in urban areas, while 79 percent felt safe on two-lane highways in rural areas.

"Americans are taking unnecessary risks on rural roads," says Lee Munnich, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Excellence in Rural Safety (CERS), which sponsored the survey. "They're more relaxed and comfortable with risk-taking on the roads where they are most likely to be killed."

Farm safety experts say the problem is often compounded on rural roads across the Southwest because rural roads are often longer and travel across large expanses of open country. But with spring's arrival, more farmers and ranchers are heading to their fields and pastures and motorists on rural highways will be seeing more tractors and large planting equipment on local roads,increasing the risks of accident or mishap.

“There is often a misconception by motorists who think that rural roadways are safer because it is a place where they can drive faster because of less traffic. But when farm equipment is being moved from field to field, the opposite is often the truth,” says Dan Neenan with the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety. “On the other side of the coin is the farmer who thinks that because he has lights and warning signs on his equipment that he is easily spotted by approaching motorists, and he lets his guard down.”

Neenan says the number one contributor to injuries resulting in accidents involving agricultural equipment is farmers who are not wearing seatbelts.

“The number of accidents involving farm equipment is increasing. Talking on cell phones or texting while driving is not just a problem in urban areas. In fact, many motorists—and  even farmers—feel more comfortable using their cell phones on rural roads because there is often less traffic to consider,” Neenan adds. “And this is a major contributor to vehicle accidents. Also of concern are drivers who feel more comfortable eating while driving on rural roads.”

In an effort to increase awareness and curtail rural accidents involving farm equipment, experts say checking lights on tractors and equipment and having highly visible orange triangular Slow Moving Vehicle (SMV) emblems correctly placed is a first step.

In addition and as possible, farmers and ranchers should try to move equipment across rural roads at non-peak driving times, attempting to avoid after school drivers for example.

From the motorist’s stand point, drivers need to understand that farmers have a legal right to operate their vehicles on rural roads, so the key to safely sharing the road is patience, courtesy and caution.

Also, motorists should never rush when driving down rural roads. If you drive on rural roads, chances are good that you will encounter farm equipment. Avoid rushing and allow plenty of time to reach your destination safely.

  • Pass with care: Pass farmers with caution. Be observant of oncoming traffic and of other vehicles that may try to pass. Never pass when curves or hills block your view of oncoming vehicles, in a no-passing zone or within 100 feet of an intersection, railroad crossing, bridge, elevated structure or tunnel. Also be careful that the farmer is not pulling to the right to make a wide left turn.
  • Be patient: Farmers are not operating equipment on rural roads to slow other drivers down intentionally; they are working to provide a safe food supply. Whenever possible, farmers will pull off the road to allow others to pass.
  • Slow down: The orange triangular Slow Moving Vehicle emblem warns drivers of a slow vehicle. All farm equipment traveling at speeds of 25 mph or less are required to be marked with an SMV emblem. Once you see it, slow down immediately.
  • Remain visible: Don’t assume the farmer knows you are driving near his vehicle. Although most farmers check behind them whenever possible, they are concentrating on keeping their equipment on the road and avoiding oncoming traffic. Before you pass, use your car’s horn to let the driver know where you are. Farmers may not be able to hear you over their equipment noise.
  • Yield to wide vehicles: Sometimes farm equipment is wider than travel lanes. If you approach wide equipment and cannot pass safely, stop. Watch for pilot or escort cars, which help to indicate an oversized vehicle. If you see one, pull off so the vehicle can pass you.

Cooperation among farmers and rural motorists is the key to rural roads safety.