There are few things young children like better than the sights and sounds of motorized machinery in action like the tractors, combines, mowers or trucks found on family farms and homesteads. But kids and these powerful rigs can be a dangerous combination unless due care and attention is paid.
Dr. Richard Kersbergen is a professor with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and runs a series of farm machinery safety certification workshops around the state. He is all too familiar with how quickly things can turn dangerous for children on or around machines.
“People think it’s this really pastoral scene with a tractor operator driving along with a kid or grandkid riding along on his lap or sitting on a fender,” Kesbergen said. “That is not the way [for kids] to learn how to drive tractors and it is dangerous.”
So dangerous, in fact, whenever Kesbergen sees a photo snapped of a tractor driver — or even someone on a riding lawnmower — holding a child on his or her lap on the moving machine show up on social media, he will reach out to the photographer and request the image be removed.
Tractors are not passenger vehicles
Unless a child is seated in a tractor’s jump-seat — an extra, fold-down seat included with newer machines — with a seatbelt on and inside an enclosed cab, that child is at risk. Kesbergen said.
“Unless they are buckled in and enclosed, [kids] are not protected,” Kesbergen said. “There is just so much potential for them to fall off the tractor or other moving machine.”
Tractors, Kesbergen said, are inherently tippy due to their short wheel-base and high centers of gravity.
Hitting a bump, a large rock or driving on sharply uneven terrain can cause a tractor to flip over.
“If a child falls off and ends up under the moving tractor, it’s all over,” Kesbergen said. “They are going to get run over and crushed either by the tractor wheel or whatever that tractor is pulling.”
Newer model tractors are equipped with safety features such as roll-over protection systems — or ROPS. These systems create a protective frame of metal bars that are intended to protect the operator from being crushed should the tractor overturn.
To be fully effective, however, the operator must be wearing a seatbelt so he or she is not ejected in the event of a roll-over.
Older tractors did not come with ROPS, enclosed cabs or seatbelts, and certainly not the extra jump-seats.
They are no place for children.
Sobering statistics underscore need for safety first
According to the National Ag Safety Database and the United States Department of Agriculture, an average of 300 children are killed each year in farming-related accidents. More than 25,000 suffer non-fatal injuries ranging from simple scrapes and cuts to serious injuries resulting in total disability.
A majority of the fatalities involve tractors flipping over and crushing a child, the tractor running over a child, or a collision between a tractor and a second vehicle.
In a tractor safety course, Kesbergan said, operators of all ages learn how to safely maneuver and drive a farm tractor.
“Our classes usually run five or six weeks and we have them designed for kids 14-16 years old,” he said. “When they complete the course and pass a written and driving exam, they are awarded federal certification that allows them to work on a farm.”
Courses like the ones offered in Maine are appealing to youth and adult new-comers to farming all over the country, Kesbergan said.
“It’s a federal certification program,” he said. “It’s designed to teach all the aspects of tractor operations.”
One of the key points in the safety training, Kesbergan siad, is one seat, one person. This means never having an extra passenger on the tractor while it is engaged or moving.
“We really recommend taking one of these classes if you are new to tractors,” Kesbergan said. “It’s important to learn safety around and with tractors [because] there are just so many ways to get hurt.”