The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

September 15, 2012

Study tackling issue of how to cut accidents on farm

Staff and wire reports

— Researchers who hope to prevent children from dying in tractor accidents are turning to a state-of-the-art driving simulator to help determine when kids can safely operate farm equipment.

Teens are at least four times more likely to die on a farm than in any other workplace. The U.S. Depart-ment of Labor tried to address the issue this year with rules that would have limited their ability to operate farm equipment. But the Obama administration dropped the proposal after farm families and groups denounced it as overreaching and an attack on their way of life.

Garfield County Oklahoma Co-operative Extension Service holds a tractor and machinery operator certification program annually in May.

The training is for youths 14 to 16 years old who will be employed on a farm. Participants must attend all classes and pass a written exam and a driving exam.

Federal law states youths under 16 years old cannot be employed in agriculture in an occupation the secretary of Labor declares to be particularly hazardous unless the child is employed by their parents. An exception to this is for 14- and 15-year-olds who have completed the tractor and machinery operation program.

With more restrictive regulations off the table, scientists at the University of Iowa and the Marsh-field Clinic in Wisconsin are trying to attack the problem from a different angle. They’re looking at how children of different ages process information and make decisions while driving tractors in a study of cognitive development skills.

The research results eventually could be used to revise voluntary guidelines for parents and employers about when teenagers are ready to perform a variety of farm tasks.

“Our goal is to try to develop knowledge that makes it easier to prevent these accidents,” said Tim Brown, a University of Iowa researcher who helps run National Advanced Driving Simulator in Coralville, Iowa.

Operating farm equipment, including tractors, is the leading cause of death and a top cause of injury among children who work in agriculture, one of the nation’s most dangerous occupations. Govern-ment data dating back to the 1990s shows two dozen or more children die each year in tractor accidents, but researchers say the lack of a central database makes it harder to be more precise and up-to-date.

Barbara Marlenga, a researcher with Marshfield Clinic’s National Farm Medicine Center, said farmers want to hang on to longstanding traditions, such as allowing children to hop on tractors at a young age. But she said the number of deaths and injuries shows children are being exposed to situations that aren’t safe, and the National Advanced Driving Simulator is the perfect place to study them without risk.

Eighty-eight children with tractor experience will hop in the cab of a commonly used John Deere tractor to take a virtual drive within the next month. A movie screen wraps around the tractor, projecting life-like images of their surroundings.

The children, ages 10 to 17, will mow fields, navigate hills and maneuver around buildings, people and vehicles. They’ll drive along gravel roads in traffic, merge, stop at intersections and pass cars.

All the while, software will record every move, including speeds, use of brakes, acceleration and eye movements.

The pilot study, funded by the National Institute for Occupational and Safety Health, aims to determine whether the simulator can pinpoint small differences in the children’s performance. If successful, it could lead to a longer and much larger study, Marlenga said.

Joe Gregoricka, 16, said the John Deere used in the study had a different feel than the older tractors he drives on his family’s goat farm near Springville and the corn farm where he works. He said the roads were “very realistic,” although he joked the drivers in the simulator wouldn’t pass him on a road when he waved.

Gregoricka said he’s aware of the dangers of farm equipment, including a wagon he backs up to a conveyor belt to sort corn. It could trap somebody if operated incorrectly. But he said he feels like he’s “pretty good” since he’s been driving farm equipment for years.

Parents looking for guidance now find a confusing array of recommendations that Marlenga said.

American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children be 16 before operating farm equipment, but federal rules allow workers as young as 14 to drive tractors if they pass a certification course. The North American Guidelines for Children’s Agricultural Tasks, released in 1999, say 12-year-olds can perform simple tractor work on their parents’ farms, 14-year-olds can operate power equipment and 16-year-olds can drive tractors on public roads.