By RICK A. RICHARDS
ATTICA, Ind. — A Purdue University report that shows there were fewer farm deaths in 2011 than two years ago should have been trumpeted for its good news. Instead, it’s being overshadowed by the memorial service for 16-year-old Demara Fox and her parents, Daniel and Stacey Fox.
They were killed Oct. 25 when their minivan was run over by a 10-row combine just southwest of West Lafayette, Ind. Three other people in the minivan were seriously injured, including Demara’s two sisters, who are in Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis.
Bill Field, an agricultural safety expert at Purdue, said the days immediately following the wreck were incredibly busy for his staff. It drew national attention and media from around the country were calling wanting to know if there was anything that could have been done to prevent such a wreck – and if anything can be done in the future.
In a word, Field said no. “It’s very much less than 1 percent of all farm accidents that (are) a part of all traffic accidents,” said Field. “Something like this is unlikely to happen again.”
Last year, there were 16 farm-related fatalities in Indiana, down from 23 in 2010, said Field. And while there are a low number of traffic-related farm fatalities, he said those deaths represent 13 percent of Indiana’s 122 work-related fatalities last year.
“We’re moving in the right direction, but every one of these incidents is preventable,” he said. “We shouldn’t just accept this as something no one can do anything about.”
It was the severity of the wreck Field had not seen before. It also was something that shocked veteran Tippecanoe County Sheriff’s Deputy Jacob Amberger. The 10-year police veteran said he has investigated dozens of accidents in his career but had never seen anything like this. The white minivan was flattened underneath the combine’s corn picker head.
Field has testified in farm accident cases around the country and is regularly called as an expert witness for various organizations. Usually he is asked about creating legislation that would minimize contact between farm equipment and other vehicles on public roads.
He has proposed such legislation in Indiana in the past, but the General Assembly has never acted on it.
A generation ago or less, Field said farms were out in the middle of nowhere and had nearly exclusive use of rural roads; not anymore. Today, subdivisions have sprung up around urban centers, creating more traffic and more possibilities for accidents.
Add in the fact today’s farm machinery is much bigger than it was a generation ago (rural roads are 20 feet wide and some equipment is 14 feet wide) and that new residents aren’t familiar with the business of farming, and a combustible mix of factors come together for accidents.
The culture of tradition
“There has been a decline in social contact between farmers and neighbors. I think one of the things we need to do is become better neighbors,” said Field. “We need to invite our neighbors over to the farm and show them what we do. We need to explain why we spread manure on the field and why we travel from field to field.”
He pointed out there are virtually no state laws governing the movement of farm equipment. Other than prohibitions against driving on interstate highways, equipment has as much right to move on the state’s roads as any other vehicle.
Field said the issue is certainly debatable. There are regulations on when, where and how a piece of heavy equipment like a bulldozer can be moved, but moving a combine, which can be larger than a bulldozer, can be done any time without a permit – and with a 16-year-old behind the wheel.
“There are rules to moving those big wind turbine blades,” said Field. “You need police and two escorts.”
He said the issue of civil liberties always comes up in the debate. Farming in Indiana has always been treated as a special category of employment and its rules and the rules governing other businesses have been different.
“Those lines are blurring,” said Field. “There is a growing polarization over issues like sharing the road and water and air rights. The question now is, what can we as farmers do to respond?”
He said the best example of that disconnect was when the Obama administration proposed new child labor regulations that would affect farmers. It would have virtually prevented teens from operating farm equipment on their family farms, eliminating a rite of passage that has been a part of farming for decades.
“The thing is, the government did this because they wanted to show farmers they cared about them. I don’t know who they were talking to, but it didn’t go over well,” said Field.
He added farmers need to become more proactive because there is a growing trend toward intense regulation. “If you want to get an idea of what might be coming here, look at the state of Washington. There, everything is regulated, and that is a trend.
“I get called every week by a lawyer wanting to talk about liability on this accident or another. It used to be if there was an accident, people paid for the damages and went on. Not now,” he said. “We’re dealing with a different society.
“In the past, if a cow got out and was in the middle of the road and was hit, people would pay the farmer for the loss of the cow. Now, farmers are being sued for allowing the cow to get out. There are all kinds of new liability concerns.
“I fully expect that in this accident, that the employee who was driving the combine, the farmer who owned the combine and John Deere are all going to get sued,” Field added.