By Matt Bernau
Driving down the road with the pickup windows down, I gawked at the neighbor’s field of sprouting corn when I glanced at the bottom of the hill only to see a four-wheel drive tractor heading straight for me. Swerving, I stepped on the brakes. The gravel shoulder was soft, and the damp grass under my wheels pulled me into the ditch as the tractor duals scattered rocks all down the side of my truck, just missing me by a few feet.
If you travel rural roads during the growing season, chances are that you’ve found yourself in a similar situation. It might be exciting the first couple of times you have to leave the road to dodge pieces of farm machinery in transit; however, is there a reason that rural travelers can’t safely meet on a road?
South Dakota codified law states that “all highway grades shall not be less than twenty feet in width.” This law was last updated in 1939, and still applies today. A 1916 8-16 International-Harvester Mogul tractor was 56 inches wide (about 4.5 ft). According to tractordata.com, a 2002 John Deere 9400 with dual wheels is 172 inches wide (about 14 ft). This represents a 307 percent increase in tractor width, while the size of South Dakota gravel roads remains static at twenty feet. Assuming a farmer was driving a 4-wheel drive down the center of a gravel road, he or she only has 34 inches between their tractor and the road’s edge.
Even if the tractor moved over to the shoulder, five and a half feet still isn’t enough room for a 9 foot wide Ford pickup to meet the JD 9400 safely. This just isn’t a problem endemic to South Dakota. According to the Wisconsin Transportation Bulletin no. 5, their gravel roads are also 20 feet wide; whereas, they have no width restriction regarding ‘implements of husbandry’ operating on a highway.
The existence of a loophole exempting agricultural machinery from design considerations on public roads and bridges has allowed states and municipalities to ignore the implications of advancements in agricultural technology. Other structures were forced to evolve to meet the needs of agriculture. Examples include the Cooperative grain elevators of the United States Midwest and Great Plains. I remember towing a gravity-flow wagon full of grain to town behind our farm pickup. The closest grain co-op with railroad access was in a small town 4 miles from our place. The elevator was constructed sometime before WWII. It was built for tractors or pickups pulling barge boxes containing about one hundred bushels of grain. Because it was narrow, a smaller semi tractor with a 30 foot trailer could dump grain on top of the inside pit, but there were only about 7 or 8 inches of space on either side of the trailer for a person to maneuver.
While small tractors were being replaced with ever larger ones, the small wooden grain elevators were being added on to with external bins and silos made of concrete and steel. Today, some of the largest cooperative grain facilities consist of a massive row or two of concrete silos, with a dump pit housed under a steel shed that is both wide enough and tall enough for tractor-trailer combinations as well as modern-day tractors with duals.
The gradual change in farm equipment and grain handling facilities apparently went unnoticed by those in charge of public monies for roads and bridges. So, how can this problem be solved? Well, in the short term, some narrower stretches of country roads could be turned into one-way streets and over width equipment could be led by an escort vehicle to warm oncoming traffic. Ideally, the goal should be a total redesign of country roads in order to meet the requirements of safety and efficiency. Any opinions on this matter would be welcome.
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