Reality, not reality TV: Tractors can be deadly in rural America
The involvement this month of Chris "Bachelor" Soules in a fatal tractor crash was no fluke: Hundreds of Iowans have been injured in tractor crashes in the last decade, and each year a handful are killed.
A man on a tractor in rural Iowa was hit and killed by a motorist this month in a horrible road crash.
But I doubt you’ve heard the names of those involved.
That’s because I’m not talking about farmer-turned-reality TV star Chris “Bachelor” Soules, charged with leaving the scene of a fatal crash Monday just north of Aurora in Buchanan County when his Chevy pickup hit the back of a tractor, killing his neighbor and fellow farmer Kenneth Mosher.
I'm talking about another deadly tractor crash in southeast Iowa that didn't generate any of this coverage, as well as dozens of others like it in the last decade, not to mention hundreds of Iowans injured while driving their farm vehicles on the road.
And those rural roads paradoxically often are busier despite sparser local population. Meanwhile, more farmers strain under a schedule of second jobs off the farm and often work through the night to plant or harvest crops.
The problem is serious and real enough that Iowa academics have dedicated themselves to a new five-year study of tractor crashes.
Predictably, national media have swarmed to the Soules story of a beefy rural sex symbol in his 14th minute of fame who may take a tragic fall in a hit-and-run felony.
In the 911 recording released Wednesday, we hear a Soules who might strike us as a more sympathetic character: He admits to the dispatcher that he hit the tractor, and later we hear what sounds like CPR performed on Mosher. Soules sounds distraught that the unconscious farmer doesn't appear to be breathing.
"The Bachelor" star Chris Soules called police shortly after a fatal crash in Buchanan County in Iowa on Monday, April 24, 2017.
Thanks to our fascination with celebrity, we now have the attention of the TV and TMZ masses.
"The media wouldn't give a rat's backside had it been Joe from up the road," one woman wrote on Facebook.
This might be sad commentary on our public priorities, but it's also a rare chance to remind the world at large of a sobering truth here in farm country: Tractors can be deadly, often just by mixing with traffic.
Each year Iowa sees a handful of fatal tractor crashes on the road. The Iowa Department of Transportation has tallied 1,127 injuries in tractor crashes in the last decade.
And in case you consider Soules' case to be a fluke, consider the pile of research money being spent to try to prevent precisely these crashes: A new $1.3 million, five-year study just getting underway at the University of Iowa will mount cameras on the backs of tractors. The next fatal collision could leave behind close-up video of a driver in the final seconds before impact.
But maybe this rare crash to make headlines can bring a silver lining. We know the media circus and legal drama around Soules will drag on for months. Maybe we can make the hard lessons from a true picture of tractor crashes linger, too.
'People need to be aware'
Because when I consider what happened this week, I think of Arlene Wilson of Donnellson in southeast Iowa. Her husband, Steve, 62, was hit and killed in the middle of the afternoon April 14 after a collision with a 19-year-old driver from Missouri in a Kia Sportage. This is the crash that I alluded to earlier — probably the first you're hearing of it.
“It’s just tragic,” Wilson said. “People need to be aware.”
According to local police, the teenager spotted Steve too late, swerved his SUV to avoid a collision but hit the three-deck mower being towed behind the tractor. The tractor overturned, slamming Steve’s head to the pavement. He died later at the hospital.
The driver was charged with following too close and paid $200 in fines.
Steve farmed as a kid but worked at the prison in Mount Pleasant. He also mowed part-time and was en route to cut the grass at a roadside weigh station.
Mowing "was going to be his retirement job,” Wilson said.
Last year saw six deaths in tractor crashes. The spike during the last decade of data from the Iowa DOT was in 2012, with a dozen killed.
Carter Bixby, of Dike, last May nearly became one of those fatal statistics. He was driving between farms, on his way to pick up a manure pump when an SUV rammed into the back of his old Allis Chalmers. The collision shot him through the glass of his tractor cab window.
"The tractor landed on all four tires and kept going," said Bixby, 20. "It went around me twice and almost ran me over."
He suffered nine broken ribs, a collapsed lung, bruised kidney, lacerated liver and a broken collarbone and scapula as part of a "floating shoulder" that never will fully heal. Bixby spent two weeks at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and didn't work for two months.
But by July he had climbed back onto the tractor seat.
"Now I look over my shoulder and think, 'Are they going to go around me?'" he said. "'Are they going to hit me?' It’s just very kind of scary."
The driver paid a few hundred dollars in fines for failure to maintain control, but Bixby said that he's still embroiled in a civil lawsuit.
Farming: A top-10 dangerous job
This is how farmers truly spend their time among car traffic: Looking over their shoulder, a little uneasy.
My own dad used to drive a vintage Ford 8N tractor along the gravel back roads of Iowa. Not every farm machine out there is a shiny new behemoth with an air-conditioned cab and GPS guidance system. Farmers are notorious for eking decades of work out of antique machines that leave them more vulnerable to large pickups and SUVs that zoom along rural highways.
The 40-year-old tractor without a cab that Mosher drove, a John Deere 2640, is a modest utility workhorse about 12 feet long.
Farming is a dangerous profession, especially in the last century, since tractors and other large machinery replaced horses and mules.
And remember that farmers often toil alone, in the middle of nowhere. Their workplace tends to be far from an emergency hospital room.
However you slice the data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and other sources, farming is one of the top 10 most dangerous jobs. It’s nestled among steel workers, roofers and electric line installation and repair. Loggers far and away suffer the highest rate of fatalities. But in terms of sheer numbers, farm and ag workers killed while on the move are second only to truckers.
One analysis by the University of Iowa shows the most common nonfatal farm injuries in a pie chart: Tractor rollovers are most common — one of which occurred Friday in Red Oak — and those, combined with being thrown from a tractor or run over by it, represent the majority of injuries.
Another U of I study of farm-vehicle crashes in nine Midwestern states from 2005-2010 showed that the vast majority happen during fall harvest. And 80 percent in daytime, 77 percent during clear weather.
This isn't only a rural phenomenon. Of the 7,000 crashes included in the study, nearly one-third of them occurred in urban ZIP codes.
Of course farmers on tractors aren't always the victims. Poor driving decisions are made by drivers of every type of vehicle. DOT crash data includes the occasional drunk farmer on a tractor.
And online commenting around the Soules wreck has included car drivers concerned about proper lighting and signs on tractors and farm implements, namely the required giant reflective orange slow-moving vehicle sign, headlight, taillight and flashing amber lights.
The same UI study of nine states also found that more stringent lighting standards for farm vehicles might reduce crashes by more than half.
Yet visibility was not an issue last year when Russell "Rusty" Buckley of Earling, 67, was hit and killed in August in Shelby County on his 1949 Ford tractor.
He was part of a "tractor run" that day to help raise money for a Harlan man who needed a lung transplant. He was driving among a procession of 50 tractors, not to mention cars, trucks and motorcycles.
A Lincoln Navigator, weaving among the tractors in an attempt to pass, clipped Buckley's back left tire and sent him flying through the air. His own tractor then ran across Buckley's chest and abdomen. He spent 46 days in intensive care in Omaha before he died — in the same hospital as the lung transplant patient he had been trying to help.
The driver, Orin Wright, 24, charged with vehicular homicide, is out of jail on bond, awaiting trial scheduled to start in June.
"God says we’re supposed to forgive," said Buckley's brother, Rex. "So we forgive (the driver) and we've got to go on. It was a sad thing to happen, but it happened."
'Rural roads are actually getting busier'
The new U of I study, funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, will mount cameras on about a dozen different Iowa tractors this year to record and observe drivers’ behaviors as they approach from behind.
Then researchers will produce a targeted awareness campaign in those specific communities and gather more footage to evaluate its effectiveness.
“Rural roads are actually getting busier, as there’s more agri-tourism and as suburban development pushes its way” into farm country, said Brandi Janssen, a clinical assistant professor with the College of Public Health who directs Iowa’s Center for Agricultural Safety and Health.
Janssen adds that more farmers are working later at night. Better lighting on modern tractors allows it. But more farmers also work day jobs off the farm, she said, and must seize the opportunity to finish a field within a “tight weather window.”
I suppose in that sense, Soules and his reality-TV career is just one more way that farmers in their everyday life and work have adapted to our 21st century economy.
But there's still that disparity: On the second day of blanket media coverage of the Soules crash, Wilson had an appointment with her attorney to discuss her late husband’s will. Reporters weren’t clamoring for an interview with her or anybody involved in the wreck.
Her situation is the typical one: Tractor-car collisions generally rate a news brief, if that. Iowans are left to grieve in relative anonymity. Celebrity news sites at large prefer to cover farming as a folksy zoo backdrop to an orchestrated TV romance.
But the statistics and all these grieving families behind them tell the true story.
"During harvest and planting season it makes me think about people, farmers all over the road," said Bixby, lucky to be alive and finish his college education. "People should know it’s planting and it’s harvest season."
At least we Iowans should know. And this might be a moment to remind more of our fellow Americans.
Kyle Munson can be reached at 515-284-8124 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See more of his columns and video at DesMoinesRegister.com/KyleMunson. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@KyleMunson).