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Road rules for tractors in the UK and Europe

13th January 2014

While UK farmers wait to hear whether they will be able to legally run at higher road speeds and weights, many European growers have had that option for years. David Cousins summarises the options and looks at the controversial area of testing.

Why are we talking about this now?

 Heavier tractors and bigger trailers hauling crop from ever-larger harvesting equipment are making the current 1950s-style ag road legislation look distinctly out of date. Not to mention a road network that is struggling to cope with traffic levels that are much higher than they were 20 years ago. There were 20m cars on UK roads in 1983, but 34m today.

 

What was the situation in the past?

Twenty years ago, the average 120hp tractor had a top speed of 40kph (25mph), though legally it wasn’t supposed to exceed 32kph (20mph). And it typically pulled a 12 or 14t trailer from field to grainstore, which meant it comfortably came under the legal weight limit of 24.39t for the tractor, trailer and the trailer’s contents (known as the Gross Train Weight or GTW).

 

What about now?

Fast forward to 2013 and the average tractor has 150-250hp under the bonnet and a top speed of 50kph, though it’s still technically not allowed to exceed 32kph (20mph). Both tractor and the trailer are heavier, as is the weight of what’s in the trailer, so many farmers are unwittingly driving tractors and trailers that exceed the current limits.

Farmers point out these ancient rules urgently need modernising to take account of the fact that farms are much bigger (hence crops have to be hauled further) and that raising weight limits will cut the numbers of tractors and trailers on the road.

Raising the maximum speed limit to a still-modest 25mph (40kph) is one change being asked for. Raising the GTW from 24.39t to 31 or 33t (depending on how many axles you have and the wheel spacing) is the other.

 

What’s the plan?

The Department for Transport (DfT) has done its own studies into the pros and cons of these changes and has now put the proposed changes out for comment from anyone who has an interest in the subject.

The key groups pushing for a raising of speeds and weights are the NFU, NFUS, Agricultural Engineers Association (machinery makers), BAGMA (machinery dealers) and the NAAC (contractors). Those most likely to be against it are hauliers, who feel that farmers already get a soft touch from legislators in terms of rebated diesel, lack of MOTs and no compulsory driver training.

Health and safety organisations, VOSA (due to be renamed Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency), the police, insurance companies, the Highways Agency, and Rospa are all likely to be sending in their comments and questions too, as will members of the public and no doubt many individual farmers. These are all viewable on www.gov.uk/government/consultations/agricultural-weight-limits-for-trailers-and-combinations

The consultation ends on 30 January 2014. That isn’t the end of the process, though, as civil servants have to establish whether the changes are workable and which ones will pass into the legislation.

 

That’s all well and good, but farmers in other EU countries have had these higher speed and weight limits for years surely?

It is true that almost all EU countries have higher max weights and speeds than the UK, says BAGMA’s Adam Wyatt. However these often come at the price of more regulation.

In Germany, for instance, anyone who wants to travel at over 40kph has to have their tractor tested each year, including brake performance. There’s also a general check of tyres, steering, suspension and pickup hitch.

If you want to enjoy 80kph speeds in Germany you will need to have full air-brakes, driver training and a full truck-type MOT from the TUV (the German equivalent of VOSA).

Dutch authorities are currently looking to bring in an MOT test and are looking to allow a weight limit for agricultural trailers of 11,500kg per axle. Somewhat shockingly, the country dropped its rebated diesel scheme last year.

Meanwhile France operates in a similar way to the UK, with a 40kph speed limit for tractors on their own but just 20kph with a trailer. Speed stickers are mandatory, too, though farmers get a reasonably generous max GTW of 38t.

However to drive a combine on the road you have to have the equivalent of an HGV licence. Oh, and the trailer has to have its own tax disc and insurance.

The one country that appears to have no road regs is the Irish Republic. The combination of generally small roads, low speeds and a fair number of smaller, older tractors means that legislation isn’t required. However the Irish government has recently required all farmers to register their tractors.

 

What upgrading of tractor and trailer specifications are UK legislators likely to recommend in the UK?

We’re not likely to know the answer until the consultation period is over, the civil servants have pored over the submissions from various bodies and the DfT has announced what it wants to do. The hoped for changes in speed limits are probably fairly straightforward, since they involve a very modest change from 32kph to 40kph (20mph to 25mph).

 

Why was there no proposal to push road speeds to 50kph, when that’s the speed most new tractors can run at?

The answer is that this runs counter to an EU-wide homologation proposal to peg tractor speeds at 40kph, other than those that run with truck-style brakes/driver training.

 

How does this help the public?

Slow-moving farm machinery makes life very frustrating for car drivers, so anything that speeds them up is likely to be welcomed. And a move to fewer, bigger trailers should mean less wear and tear on the road, less noise and pollution.

 

Will tractors have to be tested though?

Though most farmers will not welcome it, a test of some sort does look on the cards. The favoured option is a two-tier system that would involve some form of voluntary roadworthiness testing.

For those not wanting to have their tractors and trailers tested, the situation would remain as it currently stands – a 20mph (32kph) top speed and 24.39t gross train weight.

However, operators willing to put their machinery through an annual test would be able to travel at more than 20mph and run at higher train weights.

 

What will testing involve?

This could involve using existing VOSA rolling roads (used mostly by trucks) though the number of these sites is diminishing and could involve a longish trek.

The alternative to a rolling road is BAGMA’s Thorough Examination Scheme. This started life nine years ago when the government introduced compulsory checks for handlers and front-end loaders but has now widened into voluntary testing of tractors.

Some 400 engineers at 100 agricultural dealers around the country can test your tractor at their premises or your farm, says Mr Wyatt. Most of the tests involve handlers, but voluntary tractor and self-propelled sprayer inspections have risen 100% over 2013. Roughly 1,000 inspections of all machine types took place in 2013.

 

Do these inspections include brakes?

Yes, though the system is somewhat different from the rolling road. It’s called the BAGMA Brake Safe and uses a decelerometer to measure the efficiency of the trailer’s brakes as a %. The minimum requirement is 45% efficiency if operated at more than 32kph and 25% efficiency if operated at below 32kph, and Mr Wyatt says that its tests have shown little difference in accuracy between the two systems whether conducted at dealer premises or on the farm.

 

What do the tests cost?

It depends on what the machine is and how far the tester has to travel, but reckon on £70-£150 for a tractor + front-end loader tested at your own farm.

 

This article was first published in the Farmer's Weekly magazine on 13th December 2013. It was edited by David Cousins.

 

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