IOWA CITY — A relatively low portion of accidents between farm equipment and passenger vehicles involve alcohol. But those that do tend to be more dangerous and deadly, according to a new study out of the University of Iowa.
Karisa Harland, UI adjunct assistant professor of emergency medicine, led the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health-funded research from the UI’s Great Plains Center for Agriculture Health.
She said the hope for the study — published this month in “Traffic Injury Prevention,” a bimonthly peer-reviewed journal — is to educate motorists and farmers and encourage preventive practices.
“From a farmer perspective, they need to make sure that their equipment is well lit,” Harland said.
She added making equipment such as tractors and combines more visible could be as simple as “cleaning off your slow-moving vehicle sign so it’s more reflective and replacing it if it’s starting to fade.”
“From a motor vehicle and passenger vehicle standpoint — obviously there needs to be continued education on the risks of driving while impaired,” she said. “And also on interacting with farm equipment on the roadways.”
The study comes at an especially relevant time after former reality TV star Chris Soules in April crashed his truck into the back of 66-year-old Kenneth Mosher’s tractor just north of Aurora. Soules, 35, was charged with leaving the scene of a fatal crash, as Mosher died in the collision.
First responders found empty and partially consumed open alcohol containers in and around Soules’ truck, and he also was seen buying alcohol before the crash, according to court documents. His attorneys reported two urine and blood samples were negative for drugs or alcohol, but authorities said Soules went home after the crash and refused to open the door until law enforcement obtained a search warrant hours later.
His trial is scheduled for Jan. 18, and he faces up to five years in prison if convicted. Harland, who started her research in 2011 and wrapped it earlier this year, said the case hit the news as she was absorbed in her study and analyzing its findings.
“If felt like our research was timely,” she said.
But the Soules case bucked her study’s findings — that odds of an injury or fatality are more than two times higher for passenger vehicle drivers than for those operating the farm equipment.
“If you have a gigantic combine and a small car runs into it, the car is going to absorb all the energy and therefore that person is more likely to be injured,” Harland said.
That size difference likely explains why alcohol-related collisions between farm equipment and passenger vehicles — while less frequent than standard vehicle crashes — more often have devastating consequences.
“If we’re looking at only crashes that involved alcohol impairment, which we had 61 of those, then 75 percent of those 61 had either an injury or fatality,” Harland said.
Her research analyzed data between 2005 and 2010 from four regional states — Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Researchers found data for 1,971 total on-road farm equipment crashes — with Iowa reporting the most crashes, at 1,023, and North Dakota reported the fewest, at 165.
But North Dakota reported the highest percent involving alcohol, at 6.1 percent, while Iowa reported the fewest involving alcohol, at 2.4 percent.
The 61 total alcohol-related farm equipment crashes has them accounting for just 3.1 percent of the total — which is smaller than for standard vehicle crashes. One in 20 of the farm-equipment crashes resulting in injuries, or 5.6 percent, and one in six of the fatality crashes, or nearly 18 percent, involved an alcohol-impaired driver.
Meanwhile, 30 percent of standard fatal motor vehicle crashes involve alcohol.
Reasons for the difference could include timing, Harland said, as farm vehicles aren’t on the road as often and aren’t as prevalent at night, outside urgent harvest seasons.
“Other than in the fall when they’re maybe working 24/7, or the spring … my hypothesis would be that the farm equipment is probably not on the road at night when there is more likely to be an alcohol involved crash,” she said.
But because farmers in this and neighboring rural states do sometimes have to traverse the roads at night, Harland said her research sheds a spotlight on the risk of doing so and the need to improve awareness and prevention efforts.
“Although these crashes with alcohol are rare, three percent, when it does happen, there are severe consequences,” she said.