Fair shares and ploughshares – how farmers and bikers can help each other on the road

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Published on 11 June 2019 by Mike Waters

The British Motorcyclists Federation’s Mitch Elliott explains why there’s plenty of room on the road for tractors and motorbikes alike

People don’t tend to think that farmers and bikers have much in common, but they’re wrong. In fact, both groups are probably the best people to talk to about rural roads. Farmers naturally use them to move livestock, deliveries and machinery and bikers love them for the freedom they offered compared to cramped and congested cities; it’s that simple.

Since both farmers and bikers are using these same roads, it makes sense to see if we can help each other out for the good of all. We can share advice, encourage a mutual approach to good manners as fellow road users and generally make each other’s lives that little bit easier.

As the BMF’s Regional Chairman for the Midlands, a long-standing member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists (now IAM RoadSmart) and a Riding Observer for my local authority’s ‘Smart Rider’ Advanced Rider Scheme, being a responsible user of rural roads is a subject with which I am very familiar. Over the years, subjects of common interest – the condition of the roads, highway safety and the like – have come up and it made sense to share the insights we’ve worked up here.

MUD, GLORIOUS MUD
The first subject we have in common is something that isn’t exactly glamorous, but it’s important nonetheless – mud. Let’s be frank; it is a reality of the countryside as we know and enjoy it that mud is always going to be a factor and that isn’t going to change. Neither is the fact that, with the population growing and demand for food rising with it, farmers will continue to be pressured to produce more with the same land or less. A practical consequence of that is moving rather a lot of mud, and that means a lot of it finds its way onto the roads.

This isn’t usually a problem for tractors or four-wheel drive vehicles, but it can be for bikers thanks to what it means for grip. A simple patch of mud is something you wouldn’t think twice about going over while behind the wheel of a tractor, but a big enough patch in an awkward enough place can mean an unsuspecting biker loses safe contact with the road and finds themselves flying sideways through a hedge. While bikers appreciate eating food and understand the need for farmers to do what they do, reducing the risk of this happening sounds like a good idea for all concerned.

We are discussing the issue with the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs at Stoneleigh and it’s pretty clear that improving safety on rural roads can only be a good thing. One suggestion that came from my BMF Region’s annual meeting was that we could all work together – bikers, the entire agricultural industry, Highways England, Wales, Scotland etc. – and agree a standard format for ‘Mud on Road’ signs that can be supplied to farmers at zero or minimal cost along with advice for optimum positioning and advice on road sweeping methods.

TRUE GRIT
But what about the roads beneath the mud? It’s a hard fact that, in the current economic climate, finding the money to repair worn-out roads will continue to be a challenge – my local authority once noted that, with the budget they had at the time, it would take 115 years to complete all of the road repairs on their docket – and that means stop-gap measures like surface dressing will be used instead of proper replacement. Farmers and bikers obviously both object to roads that aren’t fit for purpose, but these are the roads we’ve got so it makes sense to protect them as best we can.

In the specific case of surface dressing, it’s a cost-effective technique that traditionally uses a process called ‘racking in’. After the application of the binder (tar), a coating of 12mm chippings is laid, another coating of 6mm chippings is put down on top of that, everything is compacted with a roller and then the remainder of loose chippings are left for the traffic to bed everything in. This can extend the working life of a road by up to 15 years and eight miles of road can be maintained for the same cost as replacing one mile, but it also means an annoying tide of loose chippings gets everywhere.

To deal with this, we can help each other out. On the one hand, recently treated areas come with temporary speed restrictions to prevent still-loose chippings being thrown all over the place and these are probably going to be more of a matter for motorcycles than tractors. On the other hand, timely sweeping is critical to minimising the build-up of those loose chippings. With a little care and attention, we can make sure everyone gets to use the roads for longer and is spared an inconveniently vast increase in their taxes to fix everything all over again too.

WORKING TOGETHER
These are just two issues and I’m sure we can all think of many more that could benefit from our working together to sort them out – if two heads are better than one, two well-coordinated lobbies can achieve far more than either could alone as well. There’s a good chance that farmers and bikers the length and breadth of the country have been running into the same problems from opposite ends for a very long time, so let’s see if we can do something about the gap and meet in the middle.

If you have any more ideas like these or can think of ways to improve them, please get in touch. The British Motorcyclists Federation website at bmf.co.uk has contact details for all of the local regions near you if you want to talk about an issue that’s close at hand and for the national organisation too if you want to discuss something bigger.

In the meantime, and in the spirit of showing willing, we’ve worked up a straightforward ‘Be Aware’ list of things for bikers to bear in mind when out on rural roads.

 
Spring

  • Road surfaces may be worn or damaged following winter
  • Surface dressing programmes usually start about now
  • Verge mowing often starts about now
  • Watch out for increased agricultural traffic and activity
  • When cattle are being turned out of fields, roads near farms may be covered with slurry

Summer

  • Weather permitting, surface dressing programmes usually finish about now
  • Plenty of verge mowing around this time
  • Increase in holiday traffic – screaming kids mean distracted drivers!
  • Late summer will see the start of harvesting

Autumn

  • Start of sugar beet harvesting – with fewer processing plants, crops are now transported longer distances
  • Accumulations of straw are likely on rural roads
  • Trees are starting to shed leaves

Winter

  • Watch out for ice and snow, and be prepared for the start of gritting
  • Windchill under bridges or through culverts may result in localised ice formation
  • It’s not widely known, but salt can freeze. Any dilution gives a freezing point of -8/9˚C
  • From a local authority perspective, winter starts on Oct 1 and finishes on April 30

 General

  • The smell of fresh cut grass likely means that a tractor and mower are around the next corner. Watch out for people and machinery
  • Similarly, fresh straw hung in trees suggests that harvesting is taking place nearby. Even dry, fresh straw on the road is like ice
  • Cattle in a field opposite a farm suggest the road may be covered with animal slurry
  • Always watch out for leaves in dips in the road – especially under trees and on corners
  • The same applies to puddles – they may hide accumulations of silt or potholes

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