It is always upsetting to read about fatal accidents and particularly so when they are farming related, so the recent spate of agricultural fatalities – many involving tractors on public roads – has made me think about a subject that has troubled me for some time.
Our industry has long argued that one area where we are at a disadvantage to our European counterparts is agricultural weight and speed limits on public roads. UK legislation, some say, should be brought closer into line with other EU countries to better reflect the needs of modern farming.
Proponents of a change in the law claim that when our European cousins are allowed to operate at up to 44t gross train weight, as is the case in Belgium and the Netherlands, and at speeds of up to 80kph in Germany, the current UK limits of 24.4t and 32kph are both anti-competitive and anachronistic.
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Ever-larger farming and contracting businesses operating larger higher-output machinery over wider geographical areas further reinforce the case for a revision of the rules.
Consequently the industry is in consultation with the Department for Transport, to raise both the maximum weight and speed that agricultural vehicles are allowed to operate at on public highways.
While this might all seem perfectly reasonable to us, when one steps back and considers the bigger picture, a stark and troubling fact remains. Currently, a 17-year-old child in possession of a basic driving licence is allowed, without any formal training, to drive on a public road an agricultural vehicle of the same weight and capable of the same speed as a lorry that requires an LGV licence, a tachograph and a rigorous annual MoT inspection.
Furthermore, agriculture’s harvest exemption to the EU Working Time Directive effectively allows this to go on for prolonged periods of time without any provision for the mandatory rest breaks that more qualified and often more experienced LGV drivers have to adhere to.
Harvest is a time when the pressure on many becomes intense. Windows of dry weather have to be taken advantage of; work progresses at a relentless pace and hours spent behind the wheel are long. But tiredness respects none of the above and one has to ask: How many near-misses occur every day on rural roads as a consequence?
We claim to be a world-class, professional industry, but must accept that with that comes both responsibility and accountability for our actions. Even during harvest, we should neither ask for nor expect special treatment.
While the loss of one life is a tragedy, the outcome of any of the recent accidents could so easily have been even more horrific. One shudders to imagine what might have happened had just one of those tractors hit an oncoming car carrying, say, a mother and her young children, and the inevitable public outcry that would have ensued.
Unpalatable as it may be, if we are not prepared to proactively address this now, then we will have little grounds to contest the imposition of far tighter regulation, with little prospect of any upward movement on agricultural weight or speed limits, after the event.
Many of us have a sense of “there but for the grace of God” when we read about tractor accidents. Our most sincere condolences go out to the families of those who have lost their lives in this way.
But if we’re serious about increasing weight and speed limits while cutting the accident and death toll, we may first have to make some difficult choices.
David Alvis is an independent agribusiness consultant based in Cambridgeshire. He is a Nuffield scholar and recently co-managed the Technology Strategy Board’s sustainable agriculture and food innovation platform.