In this week’s blog ‘Taking the Rural Road or Route’, IAM RoadSmart member Denis Cartmel, who has made his career from teaching others to drive tractors safely, offers his insight into the world of driving agricultural vehicles and some of the key aspects other road users should be aware of.
Members familiar with country roads will, by and large, have generated automatic recognition of the hazards they can present. But for those who do a high proportion of their driving in urban areas or on major routes, tempers can become frayed and opinions heated when driver/rider and machine meet!
Tractors are often at the centre of this frustration - they’re slow, drop mud on the road, often poorly lit day and night, they take up all the road and force us to reverse… Guilty on all counts!
So how fast is a tractor allowed to travel on public roads? There are two distinct categories here, the conventional tractor and the high-speed tractor. High speed tractors, such as the JCB Fastrac and the Mercedes-Benz MB-Trac, can legally travel up to 40mph, while conventional tractors and other self-propelled machinery can travel up to 25mph. But note the word ‘can’ in both cases – lower limits may apply depending on what that tractor is pulling/carrying so don’t be surprised if the tractor holding you up is doing 20mph, or even 12mph, that may be its limit.
Slow vehicles tend to mean traffic queues with frustrated drivers and riders therein. You may be surprised to know that some agricultural vehicle drivers have been prosecuted for creating unreasonable queues, but what exactly defines ‘unreasonable’? In some countries the legal limit is 5 vehicles behind, while in the UK Rule 169 of the Highway Code states “Do not hold up a long queue of traffic, especially if you are driving a large or slow-moving vehicle… and if necessary, pull in where it is safe and let traffic pass.” So why are drivers in the queue so keen to get by? One tip I’d offer is always allow extra time if you’re driving or riding along a country road – you may find yourself stuck behind an agricultural vehicle who’s struggling to find a safe passing place.
See, and be seen.
Large farm vehicles offer limited rear-view vision, while tractor mirrors are often basic, vulnerable to being damaged, difficult to adjust and have a limited field of vision at best. It’s best to assume the tractor driver can’t see you if you’re shaping up to overtake, especially if you are on a motorcycle, so allow for plenty of time to perform the manoeuvre and put plenty of space between you and the tractor.
Sadly, there are still many tractor drivers who, when wishing to turn right off a road, adopt the ‘inch out’ technique some way before the junction/field gate waiting for the sound of a horn, or vehicle alongside them. The haulage industry used to be plagued with this problem, but most haulage contractors have taken an important safety step – video cameras. When was the last time you saw a lorry without a rear-view camera? The more clued-up farmers have adopted this system, but they are in the minority (for now).
And remember, it may not be obvious that there is a junction, any gap in a hedge is a possible junction for an agricultural vehicle.
Let there be light.
Of course, tractor drivers could indicate their intention in the approved manner, couldn’t they? Sorry to say this is another aspect which often lets the side down. Road lighting is still an expensive extra on basic trailer equipment, and what’s offered by manufacturers is often poor quality so doesn’t last long. Add to that the mud, water and a host of corrosive liquids seeping onto the lights, and fragile bulb contacts within soon give up the fight!
While road lights may be little use to other road users, farm machinery does often use work lights to illuminate the unlit machine being towed or carried, and some of those are seriously bright LEDs. Again, as a driver or rider these can sometimes be a distraction that’s worth preparing yourself for when driving on country roads.
For many agricultural vehicle drivers, the mud-on-road issue is difficult to avoid when coming off wet fields, and many farmers I know make some effort to at least warn other road users and often do some scraping/sweeping at intervals to reduce the risk. Much of the responsibility, though, rests on the shoulders of those ‘other road users’ and as all good drivers and riders know observation (see the mud) and anticipation (expect less grip) are key. Driving on country roads after a spell of wet weather should ring the alarm bells, while mud on the road without the wheel marks of other road traffic means the slow-moving culprit is not far ahead, anticipate!
So, from an agricultural machinery driver’s perspective – “forgive our trespasses, please”. We genuinely don’t want to inconvenience you; we simply want to get out of your way - driving agricultural machinery on the road is rarely profitable!