As the harvest season gets rolling, people driving on rural roads are likely to encounter slow-moving farm vehicles. That means it's time for all drivers to be especially vigilant and careful.

It's legal to drive farm machinery on public roads. It's often the only way farmers can get from field to field. But the mix of slow-traveling farm equipment and speedier cars poses hazards.

Cheryl Skjolaas, University of Wisconsin Extension agricultural safety specialist, says drivers must remember that farm equipment is big, slow and not very maneuverable.

"It's important to be alert and remember that these farm vehicles don't behave like cars and trucks when it comes to speed, turning or braking," Skjolaas says.

She reminds people operating farm vehicles to take precautions, as well.

"If you have to move equipment on public roads, it's a good idea to check out the route ahead of time so you know where the hazards are," Skjolaas says. "Try to move the equipment at a time of day when the traffic is light. And be sure to replace any broken lights, clean the slow-moving vehicle (SMV) sign and make sure you're as visible as possible."

Skjolaas offers some tips and reminders for people driving cars on rural roads:

  • Farm machinery that goes less than 25 mph should display an orange SMV emblem on the back. Alternatively, the equipment may have an amber strobe light.
  • An automobile traveling at 55 mph will catch up quickly with a piece of equipment going 25 mph or less. That means automobile drivers should slow down as soon as they see farm equipment on the road ahead.
  • The farm vehicle operator may not be able to see around the equipment, so don't assume that the operator knows you are approaching.
  • Farm equipment operators are not required to drive on the road shoulders. If safe, the farm machinery operator may pull off to allow traffic to pass. Sometimes, wide machinery will need to move completely onto the road to avoid a mailbox or some other roadside hazard.
  • Some wide equipment may extend into the oncoming traffic lane.
  • Farm machinery may not have brake lights or turn signals.
  • Farm machinery crossing the road moves slowly and may be pulling equipment that will take longer to clear the road.

A majority of farm equipment and motor vehicle crashes occur when the farm equipment operator slows down to turn and the motor vehicle operator moves to pass. When you pass farm machinery, make sure the driver is not about to turn left.

Before you decide to pass, look for driveways into farms or fields where the farm vehicle operator could be turning. Also, make sure the road is wide enough and watch for roadside obstacles such as mailboxes that might cause the equipment operator to drift to the left. In addition, make sure that you have enough time and distance to pass safely. It is illegal to pass farm equipment in no-passing zones.