It was a day like any other when David Anderson hitched a fertilizer sprayer to his Ford 5610 tractor and headed south on U.S. Highway 431 near Guntersville.
Even at his usual full-throttle speed of 25 mph, the 3.8-mile trip to his coastal Bermuda hayfield on Baker’s Chapel Road shouldn’t have taken long. It was a trip he’d made countless times, usually about six times a week, as he’d go from field to field tending his cattle and hay fields.
But on April 30, 2007, the trip would be Anderson’s last. Just a few hundred feet before turning off the four-lane highway, an 18-wheeler slammed into the rear of the sprayer tank filled with 500 gallons of nitrogen. David Anderson, president of the Marshall County Farmers Federation, was dead at 42.
"He was like a son to me," said 71-year-old Martin Anderson, David’s eldest brother who had helped raise him after their father died.
According to the Alabama Department of Public Safety (DPS), David Anderson was among six highway fatalities involving farm equipment that year. It was the most highway fatalities involving farm equipment since 1999.
Figures aren’t yet available for 2008, but DPS spokeswoman Martha Earnhardt knows one thing: One farmer killed is one too many.
"We’re not looking at a lot of collisions involving farm equipment," said Earnhardt. "It’s a small number, but one fatality isn’t small if it’s YOUR family. So whenever we see a way to bring those numbers down even further, whether it’s through education, enforcement, engineering or partnerships, that’s what we try to do."
With that in mind, the Alabama Farmers Federation, the Alabama DPS and the Alabama Department of Transportation are partnering to launch "Farmer At Work," a statewide safety campaign to create an awareness of slow-moving farm vehicles on the road.
The campaign will feature radio and television public service announcements, newspaper and magazine advertising, promotional materials, and print and Web coverage.
"Every farmer has a story," said Dan Rhyne of Benton, president of the Lowndes County Farmers Federation whose own stories of death, injuries and near misses were the impetus behind the campaign.
Rhyne said one of his own workers was moving equipment with a tractor when he was struck and killed by an 18-wheeler about a decade ago. Since then, Rhyne has seen or heard of numerous other farming accidents on U.S. Highway 80, a four-lane highway with a 65 mph speed limit.
He quickly reels off five other accidents, including another of his workers who miraculously escaped injury when the cotton picker he was driving was struck from behind and destroyed by a passing 18-wheeler.
"And those are just the ones I know about," said Rhyne. "All of those happened within a 20-mile stretch of Highway 80."
Allen Jones, a former state Alfa Young Farmers chairman, sits in his pickup truck waiting for a single car to pass before he pulls onto Highway 79, a fairly straight two-lane blacktop that cuts right through the middle of his Blount County farm. The car is at least a quarter-mile away, but Jones has been extra careful since his accident in 2005.
He had just steered his John Deere 5310 onto the highway and was about a half-mile from home when he heard a car horn behind him. As he turned in his seat to see who was blowing their horn, a woman in a compact car struck the tractor, shearing off its left fender and wheel.
"As I turned around, she was about a foot from the back of the tractor. I was looking right at her when she hit," said Jones. "She had long blonde hair, and I can still see it flying toward the windshield."
The car screeched to a halt about 70 yards up the road. Jones and his tractor were thrown to the right shoulder of the road; the new armrests he had installed that morning had kept him in his seat.
"I got a face full of anti-freeze and diesel and couldn’t see," he recalled. "And I could hear kids crying like they were hurt. I thought, ‘Oh, no! There was a child in that front seat!’"
Two young children were strapped into the backseat of the car, but the only injury was a slight cut on one child’s lip.
"I’m lucky to be alive," said Jones, who was only bruised and sore.
But six months later, on a vacation to Disney World with his family, Jones began getting sick. After a battery of tests, he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition for which he still receives treatment.
Whenever possible, his wife, Connie, now follows her husband in the truck, escorting him whenever he has to turn onto Highway 79. Of course, with their cattle and poultry farm split by the highway, that is almost daily.
Now, other farmers who operate tractors and farm equipment along Highway 79, are following the Joneses’ lead and having family members or neighbors accompany them whenever they take to the road.
Such escorts are really the best solution for farmers, said Dr. Jesse LaPrade, an Extension agent who tracks such accidents from his office at Auburn University.
That’s because so few motorists either don’t know what the reflective triangle on the back of farm vehicles means or that tractors can’t go any faster.
"Some don’t have a clue what that means," LaPrade said of the yellow-orange fluorescent Slow-Moving Vehicle (SMV) sign in use since 1971. "They see the triangle and the bright color, and they know it means something. If they’d just realize the triangle means it’s a vehicle that can’t go more than 25 mph … we’ve got to get that message out."
According to state law (Title 32, Chapter 5, Sections 246-251), the SMV sign is required on the back of every vehicle that has a "maximum potential speed of 25 mph." The law specifies the size of the sign as well as requirements as to how it’s to be affixed to the vehicle.
More important, LaPrade said, is drivers understand just how quickly an automobile moving 55 mph will close the gap on a tractor a football field away. At that speed and distance, the car and tractor will collide within five seconds. By the time a driver realizes he’s about to rear-end the tractor, he/she will only have about three seconds to act.
"You need to slow down as soon as you see that sign," said LaPrade. "Don’t wait until you’re up on it — it’s not going to speed up."
Still, LaPrade said, even with the SMV signs affixed to their tractors, farmers remain extremely vulnerable to inattentive and impatient drivers.
"You can have flashing lights, you can have a Slow-Moving Vehicle sign, and they’re still going to say they didn’t see you — that’s the only defense they’ve got," said LaPrade. "So, farmers should never get out there on the highway — even when the weather is nice and clear — without turning their lights on. If both flashers will flash at the same time, do that."
LaPrade said today’s hurry-up culture may be a factor in highway accidents involving farm vehicles.
"Patience is a virtue, but it can also save lives," he said. "Some may see a tractor that’s slowing them down as a hindrance. They don’t think much beyond that, but all the farmer is doing is trying to make a living."
"We do all we know to do," said Rhyne. "We don’t risk traveling in late afternoon, we travel on Saturday mornings a lot of time when it’s a light travel day. We teach our employees to pull off the road when there’s a line of traffic behind them and let traffic by. I tell them, ‘You’re not going to get to the field five minutes sooner — it’s not going to make that much difference.’ But a lot of the people on the road are in a hurry. I just wish we had more understanding."
As farmland continues to be sliced into smaller portions by development, more farmers will be forced to take to the highways to get their equipment from one field to another. "The farmer has to manage more land now than in the past just to make ends meet," LaPrade said. "He’s got to get from one field to another and a lot of times, the only thing that connects that is the highway."
Rhyne agreed, "When you farm in three counties the way we do, it’s inevitable you are going to have to move equipment. The good farm land is up and down this river (the Alabama River) on both sides and you’ve got to get to it."
The same was true for David Anderson the day of that fateful trip.
Martin Anderson was at church the day he received word there’d been an accident.
"I don’t know for sure, but I think they indicated David didn’t make it," Anderson recalled.
When he arrived on the scene about two hours later, Martin said the tractor’s lights were still flashing.
"I don’t know how the wreck happened, but the truck probably ran over almost everything except the tractor, which landed on the left side of the road," said Anderson.
"With somebody as close as David and I were — we sweated together, played together all those years — it’s very difficult," Anderson added. "When I pass there, it’s tough. And to think how close he was to where he could’ve gotten into the turn lane and gotten out of the way of the truck . . . just a few more hundred feet and he would’ve been safe."
For more information on "Farmer At Work," visit www.alfafarmers.org/programs/safety.phtml.