Farmers who have purchased "fast tractors" probably feel like the driver of a Ferrari on a road with a speed limit of 55 mph, says a program coordinator for Ohio State University Extension's Agricultural Safety and Health program.
"A lot of cars are built to go faster than the speed limit allows, but that doesn't mean it's legal to do so," says Wayne Dellinger.
The same can be said for tractors built for speeds up to 40 mph.
Fast tractors, available for several years from a number of manufacturers, are comfortable and easy to drive, Dellinger says. But under Ohio law – as in most states – all farm equipment must carry the slow-moving vehicle emblem on the back. And any vehicle with a slow-moving vehicle emblem cannot, by law, go faster than 25 mph.
Dellinger has been consulting with representatives from the Ohio Highway Patrol, the Ohio Farm Bureau and the Ohio state legislature who are trying to determine how best to change Ohio law so the tractors can be permitted to go faster on roads when it is safe to do so, yet not undermine the integrity of the slow-moving vehicle sign.
"It took a long time for people to get used to the SMV sign and understand what it meant," Dellinger says. "We don't want to do anything that would confuse people about it."
The familiar fluorescent-orange triangular SMV emblem was designed at Ohio State in 1962.
One option being considered is to adopt recommendations by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, Dellinger says. The organization recommends pairing the SMV sign with a "speed identification symbol" – a black-and-white circle with a number inside of it indicating the highest speed at which the vehicle can be safely driven. The circular emblem also would be required on any equipment hauled behind a tractor, and a farmer could drive only as fast as the lower speed allowed.
However, Dellinger fears that allowing any vehicle with a SMV symbol to move faster than 25 mph could be unwise.
"I would be apprehensive about it," Dellinger says. "No one would know what the circular emblem means, and they'd see vehicles that should be moving slowly because of the SMV emblem going at a pretty good clip."
If Ohio does come up with an answer, it could be the benchmark for the nation, Dellinger says.
"No state has legislation to address this issue yet," he says. "That's even more reason for us to do this right the first time. I've been telling the farmers I work with to just have patience with the legislative process."
Another factor for legislators to consider is changing rules regarding the age of farm equipment drivers.
"Now, it's up to the parents. If they feel their children are old enough to drive a piece of farm machinery, it's legal for them to do so, no matter how young," Dellinger said. "So, there's the potential for an 8-year-old to be driving one of these fast tractors down the road at 40 mph."
Dellinger believes the operator age for fast tractors should be set at age 16 with a driver's license, or the speed limit should be kept at 25 mph. Dellinger also warns farmers about driving too fast on the farm.
"In the field, there are safety considerations to bear in mind when deciding on speed," he said. "You could come across large rocks, ditches, dead furrows from working the ground – or you could just be making a turn. If you're going too fast, you could be in trouble."
Towing equipment with a fast tractor gives rise to still other concerns, Dellinger says. Farm implements usually have speed ratings of 25 mph; going faster when towing them could cause the equipment's tires to blow or other parts to fail. In addition, heavier equipment being towed behind a fast tractor should have auxiliary brakes connected. Some fast tractors have antilock disc brakes, allowing the tractor itself to stop quickly.
"If you don't have the right set-up by connecting auxiliary brakes, stopping could be a problem," Dellinger says.
"These tractors are very comfortable and easy to drive. But safety always needs to come first."
In Ohio, tractor accidents are the leading cause of farm-related fatalities.
For more information on farm safety and OSU Extension's Agricultural Safety and Health program, visits the program's Web site at http://www.ag.ohio-state.edu/~agsafety/.