When I drive home from work tonight, there’s a good chance that I will end up following a combine or grain wagon on the busy two-lane highway I travel on my commute.

Each fall, I have a front-row seat to how crazy drivers get when they get stuck behind a farm vehicle. They weave in and out of lanes, trying to find an opening in traffic to make a quick pass.

A few years back, I attended a farm safety event hosted by the Cerro Gordo County Farm Bureau. The event was aimed at teenagers who were taking drivers ed and who soon would be sharing the road with farmers.

About a dozen local farmers volunteered at the event, and every one of them – yes, every farmer there – said they had seen a car drive into a ditch to avoid hitting their tractors or combines.

Farmers will admit that driving large equipment and slowing down traffic is their least favorite part of the job. But they don’t have a choice. They have to move crops out of the field as quickly as possible before the snow flies, and there often isn’t a better way to get from field to farm then to drive down a busy highway.

Remember, farmers likely can’t see you on the road behind them. But you may be thinking, tractors and combines have side and rearview mirrors, right?

Yes. However, drivers often follow so close behind a slow-moving farm vehicle that farmers can’t see the car or vehicle behind them.

What if I leave lots of space between the farm vehicle and my car? That’s a good safety practice, but it doesn’t mean the farmer can see you.

During the farm safety event, the Farm Bureau volunteers parked a line of pickup trucks behind a combine. When I sat in the combine cab, the first truck that was barely visible to me was five car-lengths back, a much greater distance than I expected.

Don’t the combines have rearview cameras like my car?

Sometimes, yes. Many new combines have rearview cameras and other safety features. However, the farmers at the event told me that the camera immediately gets covered in dust from dry corn stalks, dirt and gravel roads. Plus, most farmers don’t drive the newest equipment with added features like rearview cameras. 

So how can I stay safe when sharing the road with farm equipment this harvest?

Follow these tips from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach:

  • Slow down immediately when you see farm equipment ahead of you on the road. Farm equipment isn’t very fast, think 15-20 mph on the road on average perhaps. If you are driving 55 mph, you are covering around 80 feet per second; it won’t take very long to be right on top of a slow-moving vehicle.
  • Be patient and wait to safely pass farm equipment. Unsafe passing was one of the primary factors of a lot of motor vehicle accidents in the fall.
  • Along those same lines, be careful when approaching oncoming farm equipment. Oncoming vehicles might not be as patient as you are and pull out suddenly to pass the farm equipment — right into your path.
  • Farm equipment often has to make wide turns, so be aware of that and help out by being patient and giving them room to turn.
  • Since some of the equipment is fairly wide, you may still have to edge out on the other side of the road, further than normal; even though growers are very good at getting over as far as they safely can to let you by. Road shoulders can be notoriously tricky; they are even more challenging when the ground is wet.
  • Harvest seems to amplify deer movement both day and night. Watch your speed and scan your surroundings for them as you drive. Like anything else, situational awareness will help reduce risk.

The bottom line: Farmers can’t see you, but you can see them. Slow down, stay patient and be kind. I try to remember that farmers put food on our tables, so it is fine if I’m a few minutes late in getting dinner on my table tonight.

By Teresa Bjork. Teresa is Iowa Farm Bureau's senior features writer.