Know your limits: Combines on the road

There are certain times of year when combines and tractors flock to the roads in considerable numbers. David Cousins asked transport specialist to outline some of the legal stuff you should know about.

Do you take combines or wide implements on to public roads without either notifying the police or getting a Dispensation Order? If you do, you’re in good company, since most other farmers probably don’t either.

But if the machine or implement in question is more than 3m wide, you’re technically committing a road traffic offence by not notifying the police beforehand, says Mike Braithwaite, who specialises in advice on agricultural vehicles on the road. More seriously, if you are involved in an accident, the penalty doled out is likely to be that much greater.

There are two ways of staying legal, he says. One is to notify your local Abnormal Loads Office 24 hours ahead of movement. That might be feasible in theory, but in the rush of harvest (and especially if the weather is changing all the time) it can be difficult and sometimes just plain impossible.

There is a much easier way to do it anyway, points out Mr Braithwaite. “If you have to take a combine or any other wide implement on the road repeatedly, it may be simpler to apply for a Dispensation Order. This lasts for a calendar year and means you don’t have to notify the police each time you take the combine on the road,” he adds.

“Write a letter to the Chief Constable requesting a dispensation. Outline what equipment over 3m wide (including combines, foragers, power harrows, cultivators, etc) you’ll be taking on the road. Photocopy a local map and circle the area you’ll be travelling within.”

Some police forces will allow a Dispensation Order for combines up to 4.3m wide. Others (particularly in areas with narrow roads like Devon and Cornwall) may restrict their use to combines less than 3.5m wide.

Equally, some police forces may not allow combines to be moved at night and others may put what seems an unreasonably low limit on the mileage. You may want to try to negotiate that figure upwards.

Even with a Dispensation Order you need to comply with the other rules that apply to wide vehicles on the road.

Under 3m width. No need to notify police, but marker boards may be needed (see below).
3m-3.5m Notify police or get annual dispensation order. Speed limit 20mph.
3.5m-4.3m Notify police, provide escort vehicle, lights required at night or in poor visibility. Speed limit 12mph.
Over 4.3m Notify secretary of state, provide escort vehicle, lights required at night.
Mounted and trailed implements
3m-3.5m Notify police, projections of more than 305mm either side require marker boards, lights required at night.
3.5m-4.3m Notify police, escort vehicle required, extremities have to be marked, lights required at night.
Over 4.3m Notify secretary of state, escort vehicle required, extremities required, light required.
Check your header trailer is up to scratch
DfT information sheet on agricultural tractors. Brief guide from the Department for Transport that gives an overview of the legal requirements when taking tractors on the road, with links through to further information.
NFU Business Guide on agricultural vehicle dimensions NFU Business Guide on agricultural vehicle dimensions. Detailed guide to widths, lengths and heights (available to NFU members only).