Some farmers who are breaking current law by moving large pieces of equipment on area roadways might soon fall on the right side of the law.
Many pieces of modern farm equipment - such as planters, sprayers, combine headers and tillage discs - are wider than currently allowed on the road under the Pennsylvania vehicle code.
"I have been driving them on roadways. You have to do that," said Tom Smithmyer, president of the Cambria County Farm Bureau.
But a change is in the wind now that the state Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 390, sponsored by Sen. Mike Brubaker, R-Lancaster.
In a nutshell, the proposed legislation would permit transportation of farm equipment up to 16 feet wide on roadways and also allow transportation at night, providing proper safety precautions are taken.
The bill now is being considered by the House Transportation Committee.
Under current law, movement of farm equipment larger than 14 feet, 6 inches requires a permit that is difficult for many farmers to obtain.
"The size of farm equipment has grown in recent years, and current restrictions make it very difficult for many farmers to transport equipment legally," Brubaker said. "Farming is a 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year business, and we should remove restrictions on farmers that currently require them to break the law just to complete their daily tasks."
The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau has been pushing for the legislation to update the state's vehicle code for years.
"Farmers are seeking a change in the law because it can be inconvenient, time-consuming and costly to acquire a permit every time they want to move a piece of equipment that exceeds the width requirement under the vehicle code. This can especially hinder farmers during harvest season, when multiple trips are required to move food from the field to the farm," said Mark O'Neill, farm bureau spokesman.
"Farmers want to abide by the law, but modern farm vehicles are larger and wider, and the law needs to be updated to account for those changes," he added. "Safety is a top priority for farmers, and that is why they support changes to the law that will increase safety requirements for nighttime driving."
Obtaining permits for moving over-sized equipment can be difficult because some pieces of farm equipment do not come with a VIN (vehicle identification number), and PennDOT requires a VIN before it will issue a permit.
Over-sized permits would not be required under the new law.
Pushing for change
Gary Long, Blair County Farm Bureau president, said he sat down several years ago with state Rep. Rick Geist, R-Altoona, to discuss the problem.
"I've been fighting for years to get wider equipment allowed on the highway legally. I've been working for years to get that accomplished, and it will happen," Long said.
Brubaker Farm equipment has changed, but the laws have not.
"The vehicle code hasn't kept up with the size which is becoming wider and larger. Wider equipment allows farmers to get more work done in the same amount of time," said Marty Yahner, co-owner of Yahner Bros. Farm, Patton. "In many cases, farmers are doing what is illegal."
Brubaker's legislation also would expand the maximum allowable distance that large pieces of farm equipment exempt from registration may be used between farms or between a farm and local agribusiness centers. That distance would double from 25 miles to 50 miles.
O'Neill said it is not unusual for a farmer to move his large equipment more than 25 miles because today's farmer often farms more than one farm in different parts of a county.
State Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, called Brubaker's legislation a good bill.
"This would clean up a lot of things in the motor vehicle code for [farming] implements. It was a very popular bill," Eichelberger said. "There was not any opposition to it."
Extra time on roadways
Under the current law, farmers are also prohibited from operating the larger equipment after noon on Saturdays, all day on Sundays and all day on holidays such as New Year's Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Under the new law, moving on weekends and holidays would be allowed.
"That means if I am harvesting on a weekend in the fall, or planting corn on Memorial Day, I can't move my equipment by law," Long said.
He said the bill, if it becomes law, would allow farmers to move equipment at night, on holidays and weekends, provided the equipment has warning lights.
"This would make us legal, and insurance companies would cover us under the new law," Long said.
in the House
The legislation that comes out of the House of Representatives is likely to be different and could be broken up into several bills, said Geist, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
Geist and Rep. John Maher, R-Allegheny, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, are key figures in drafting the legislation.
"We are on top of it. The language may not be the same. We've talked at length about what we want to get accomplished. We've worked very closely with the farm bureau," Geist said.
He added that he and Maher are hoping to get the legislation passed by the end of the term.
"Rick Geist and I are working to find the right balance of legislation to move Pennsylvania's outdated transportation laws forward. There was no forward progress for agriculture during the [former Gov. Ed] Rendell years. They added regulations to make it more difficult for the chicken to cross the road," Maher said. "We are working with the farm bureau and AAA and the police to try to very thoughtfully upgrade the laws so the ordinary roads that are necessary for agriculture can be accommodated without compromising the safety of others using the road. We are not quite there yet."
State Rep. Jerry Stern, R-Martinsburg and Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Patton, are in favor of the legislation.
"It would help farmers now during the planting season and in the fall with harvest," Stern said. "Farmers try to move the equipment when there is not a lot of congestion on the highway. They don't like to be a burden. They want to be able to move their equipment and move it safely."
"The more you can do to help the farmers, the better to keep them farming and growing food," Haluska said.
The local viewpoint
Local township supervisors don't see allowing the wider pieces of farm equipment on narrow township roadways as a big issue.
"In the Cove, only a handful of people have equipment that wide," said Gerald Burket, Huston Township supervisor. "They [farmers] do a good job of moving the stuff around. I don't think it will be a big issue."
Likewise, Tyrone Township Supervisor John Burket, who is also a farmer, said he doesn't have a problem with the legislation.
"You need to be able to get from farm to farm. It isn't going to hurt anything, farmers are going to move it any way. You may as well to try to make it so they are doing it legally."
Farmers have been moving equipment illegally.
Under the present law, farmers are required to get a wide load permit to move on the highway.
"Even if you cross the highway, you need a permit to do it legally. Ninety-nine point nine percent do not get permits to do it - they are willing to take the chance," Long said. "Who was the last farmer to get a wide load permit? Farmers don't just do it. This proposed law will make us all legal on the highway. We are doing it anyways."
The legal side
Farmers may not even realize they are breaking the law.
In many areas, police have not been cracking down on farmers.
"Around here the police have been pretty lenient with farmers with this issue," Eichelberger said. "The real threat is when someone could be involved in a serious accident and the piece of equipment was illegal, if you are driving a piece that is oversized by the current law. If you are operating equipment that is not legal to be on the road, you could face a lawsuit."
In 2010, there were 78 accidents and five fatalities in Pennsylvania involving farm equipment and other vehicles, according to the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.
"The state police sort of look the other way. They look the other way until something happens. [But] farmers can be cited," Long said.
Some local police have cited farmers on a regular basis, Brubaker said.
"We have worked with the police. If they are citing the farmers, that is why the law needs to be changed. They were cited because of the current statutes on the books," Brubaker said.
The state police and PennDOT have not taken a position on the proposed legislation, said Dennis Buterbaugh, PennDOT spokesman, and Maria Finn, state police spokeswoman.
Gov. Tom Corbett has said he supports the changes to the motor vehicle code, said spokeswoman Kelli Roberts.
No one is quite sure what the final piece of legislation will look like, but O'Neill said the farm bureau believes all parties are working toward a solution that will balance farmers' need to reasonably conduct business with ensuring safety of motorists and their passengers.
"We have worked with local police and PennDOT. We don't want residential traffic to be negatively impacted. We are focusing on the safety of the residential drivers, but we want the farmers to be able to farm the farms," Brubaker said. "We are trying to strike a balance that will enable the equipment to go down the road and not increase accidents."