Published: 09:44AM Mar 31st, 2014 By: Emma Langham
It’s a common joke of the British countryside. Everyone who knows tractors knows that they can be slow! Tractors are vehicles made to pull, using high torque at slow speeds for maximum effect – so they have to be slow. Don’t they? Well, we know they are, because the tractors currently chugging around the roads of Britain rarely reach speeds of above 25mph. However, it may surprise many who experience tractors only at a secondary level to realise that most tractors are capable of doubling the speed at which they are accustomed to encountering them. The reason they do not has more to do with speed limits than it does with mechanical incapacity. While no tractor is ever going to zoom down the fast lane of the motorway, they are capable of much more than they are allowed to express. Indeed, Britain is particularly restrictive when it comes to agricultural machinery. The laws pertaining to tractors are complex, and far too easy to flout without being aware of it. An entire encyclopaedia could be written upon British tractor regulations, but the speed limit at which tractors must travel is the one which most resonates with the public experience. It is perhaps for this crowd-pleasing reason that tractor speed limits and trailer weights are under review, and may be increased.
Moving With The Times
Few would argue that a lower speed limit for heavy agricultural vehicles on public highways is not sensible. Tractors are large, their loads are heavy and often unwieldy, and no vehicle towing livestock should go at a speed likely to distress or injure the animals. However, the extremely low speeds at which even unladen tractors are forced to travel reflects a long-ago time when the only mechanised vehicles on the roads were agricultural, and as such were a scary and somewhat unknown entity.
The limits have not progressed with the times, and, as the NFU have pointed out, certainly do not do the enhanced safety and carrying capacity of modern machinery justice. Nor do they take into account the relative skill of modern drivers compared to their historic counterparts, or – from a purely profit-based perspective – the increase in scale of farming operations and the subsequent need for quicker transportation times. Not to mention the fact that all the regulations applying to tractors for public road use renders insurance premiums prohibitively high.
Many modern farmers are turning to farm trucks, which can carry high loads, are less restrictively regulated, and easier to insure than tractors. However, for all their manifold advantages, these cannot manoeuvre around farmland in quite the same way that a tractor can. The result is a kind of hodgepodge of hauling and working machinery, all occupying an uneasy legal and agricultural position. Were the laws regarding tractors to be looked at and reworked into a reasonable and comprehensive format, farm trucks could perhaps be incorporated with a clearer delineation into agricultural life, as could road-going tractors and trailers.
The slow tractor in the narrow lane is a notorious feature of the British countryside. No town-dweller on holiday in the countryside could return to their home without a satisfactory tale of tractor-induced delay with which to regale their friends. Even police forces get in on the act, urging tractor drivers to beware of holding up traffic. By so doing, they are walking a very fine line between upholding the public interest and upholding the law.
The speed limit for tractors on the road varies depending on a number of criteria, including loads towed, braking facilities, placement of lamps and various other increasingly complex factors. However, even for a tractor which ticks all the boxes, the top limit is still only 40mph. Tractors bearing loads, tractors whose brakes do not quite fit the mark, tractors with lights in a certain position, tractors made after or before a certain time, or tractors bearing any one other of the myriad of regulatory curiosities which prohibit any degree of speed, are forced to crawl along between 10-25mph – a limit at which those in the haulage or any other load-bearing transportation industry would widen their eyes in horror.
Repairing A Widening Rift
The low speed limits for tractors benefit nobody. They force tractor operators to chug along the roads at near walking speed, and infuriate drivers who get stuck behind them. What is worse, many people do not appreciate that the tractors are travelling at such a ponderous pace because of the law, and put it down to either mechanical inability on the part of the tractor, or a perverse obstinacy on the part of the tractor driver. Rural drivers are frustrated, but have learned to accept the experience of sidling slowly between narrow hedges in the wake of a tractor as part of rural life.
Visitors from the towns, understandably unused to the phenomenon, are less accepting, and most tractor drivers have been annoyed by horns sounded, or people yelling out of windows for them to speed up. Anger is caused on both sides – though both tractor and car driver are equally helpless to solve the issue. This is bad for rural and urban relations – currently at an all-time low as rural people voice their anger over a succession of urban-fixated Westminster governments’ failure to listen to rural voices.
Anger in the countryside has grown with each poorly handled rural crisis – BSE, foot and mouth, the regular removal of vital local amenities like post offices, bus routes, and schools, and now the recent floods which have destroyed the homes and livelihoods of so many in the countryside have all served to foment a slow-simmering rage and resentment within rural communities. Taking a long, hard look at the tractor legislation could be a very good way for the government to defuse some tension and let rural people know that they do actually exist in the eyes of Westminster.