GERVAIS, Ore. — Molly McCargar still gets choked up when she remembers her friend and neighbor, Scott Miller.
Miller often referred to himself as “the poor farmer,” yet McCargar said he was known for his generosity. Every summer, Miller would hire local kids to help with harvest at his farm north of Salem, and he regularly donated fresh produce to the Marion-Polk Food Share.
Miller had a funny sense of humor, McCargar said, and his work ethic was infectious. That’s why it was such a shock to the community when Miller was killed in 2014 while driving his tractor on a rural county road, rear-ended by a motorist who was driving too fast. He was 63.
“I think it hit everybody,” said McCargar, a fourth-generation farmer at Pearmine Farms in Gervais, Ore. “Everybody in the community knew Scott.”
The tragedy prompted McCargar and fellow farmer Brenda Frketich to take up the issue of driver safety around tractors and other slow-moving farm equipment. They spoke at a joint press conference June 20 at Pearmine Farms, joined by representatives from the Oregon Department of Agriculture, Oregon Farm Bureau, Oregon Department of Transportation and Marion County Sheriff’s Office.
“At the end of the day, not only do I want to be able to return home to my family, I’d like our employees to be able to return home to their families,” McCargar said.
Between 2013 and 2017, there were 186 crashes in Oregon involving tractors or farm equipment on roadways, according to ODOT. Of those, three resulted in deaths and 11 in major injuries.
The number of crashes per year is also on the rise, from 26 in 2013 to 42 in 2017. McCargar said more drivers are using smartphones and GPS to chart quicker routes around highway congestion, which often leads them onto rural back roads.
“Oregon’s rural roads were designed to get agricultural commodities to market. They weren’t designed to be freeways for heavy traffic,” McCargar said. “All we’re trying to do is make a living.”
Lou Torres, a spokesman for ODOT, said distracted driving is another danger on rural roads — especially when encountering moving farm equipment.
“All of a sudden, you have a slow-moving vehicle,” Torres said. “If you’re not observing farther down the road, you’re going to catch up to it really fast and brake really hard. If you’re lucky.”
Alexis Taylor, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, said numerous farm stands, U-pick fields and wineries are another draw for city residents to the countryside.
“We are so lucky in Oregon to be able to have access to a diversity of fresh, locally grown food and agricultural products,” Taylor said. “But it also means more people are driving on rural roads to visit those farms, pick their own strawberries and cherries, or visit their favorite wineries.”
Ethan Griffith, senior deputy sheriff for Marion County, preached a few tips for drivers to be safe on rural roads, perhaps none as important as patience.
“No one likes to sit in traffic any more than the next person,” Griffith said. “Even if you have to slow down to 20 mph and follow a tractor for 2 miles, it only takes six minutes of your time, which is like waiting for two stop lights.”
McCargar said farmers, too, have a role to play. She encouraged her neighbors to make sure all safety equipment on their equipment is up-to-date and working, such as flashing lights and orange reflective slow-moving-vehicle decals.
“We really have to be vigilant about protecting ourselves,” she said. “Don’t be responsible for the next accident.”
House Bill 3213
McCargar and Frketich were also driving forces behind new legislation that expands the Oregon Safety Corridor Program to rural roads, where authorities can increase fines for violations.
House Bill 3213 directs ODOT to create a pilot program that will allow up to five counties to participate, selecting safety corridors between 2 and 10 miles long. The bill passed both the House and Senate unanimously and is awaiting a signature from Gov. Kate Brown.
Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Linn County, sponsored the bill along with Reps. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio, David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, and Bill Post, R-Keizer.
“This bill is going to provide a tool for local law enforcement, counties and communities to ensure that our county roads and farm roads are safe for tractors and farm equipment, and safe for our rural communities that want to get to and from home safely,” Boshart Davis said in a statement.
In her statement, Boshart Davis said the state has established 19 state highway corridors since 1989 in areas with higher rates of serious and fatal crashes. All but three have been decommissioned, she said, because they were so successful at decreasing incidents.
Frketich, of Kirsch Family Farms in St. Paul, Ore., said the issue has gotten to the point where it feels like a collision — figuratively and literally — on rural roadways.
“My hope is that raising awareness around road safety in agriculture, and on these country roads, will save lives,” Frketich said.