What makes tractors so dangerous for children?

By Jennifer Nelson, MOSES Organic Specialist

Go to main Farm Safety for Children webpage

What is it with tractors that makes them the most frequent cause of injury and death on farms?

It seems like such a harmless act to lift your excited little one up onto the tractor for a ride through the field, or nap the little one in the cab while you get some necessary field work done, or bring winter rations to the cattle.

Every three days, a child dies in an agriculture-related incident and, of the leading sources of fatalities among all youth, 25% involved machinery.

What is it that makes machinery, tractors in particular, so dangerous for our little ones?

There are a few factors that contribute.

First, tractors are wide open. They often don’t have seat belts or rollover bars. They’re not set up for passenger travel. Often the engines and working pieces are uncovered. PTO and implements also have uncovered pieces.

The glass on cabs isn’t made to crash. Cars and road-worthy vehicles are created to crash well and protect the bodies inside. Tractor cabs are created to house the driver, not crash well. While in the last few years tractors have been made with safety in mind, the ultimate goal for your tractor is to get the job done. And many farmers have older machinery because it’s what they can afford. Older machines were not created with modern safety standards. They’re meant to get the job done, not necessarily to carry adults—or children—safely.

Tractors are made to travel and work uneven ground. It’s easy to get used to that and push it. It just takes a moment and a tractor can lose footing.

The rollover protective structure (ROPS) is one of the most important safety devices to protect operators during a rollover. The second is a seatbelt. The problem with this is that many tractors don’t have a ROPS because they are older models. You can have one installed, but they are costly and it is one more thing that you may or not do with all the responsibilities that come with farming.

As our children grow up and begin helping with farm work, we give them more and more responsibility. So, how young is too young to drive a tractor? I have a photo of my dad when he was 12 in 1957 driving the Allis Chalmers with his engineer hat cocked to the side, pulling the old iron-wheeled hay wagon. His 3-year-old brother is standing on top of the bales in the wagon. My dad was an old hand and would have been driving since he’d been about 8 years old.

My husband and I have a field road on our farm that other farmers use to get to their fields. Frequently I do a double-take when I see the driver of the large tractors because they look too young to drive.

North American Guidelines for Children’s Agricultural Tasks (NAGCAT) Guidelines generally state that 14 to 15 years of age is a good place to begin driving small- and medium-size tractors.

Here’s why:

Children and young adolescents are physically different from adults in several ways.

These include:

  • Reach – due to shorter arms and legs, and torsos
  • Not as strong and tire more easily
  • Limited visual angles and field of view
  • Less balance and coordination

Children also have different perceptual processes. They are different from adults in these ways:

  • Estimation of physical ability
  • Perception of movement, speeds, acceleration and deceleration, and distances
  • Visual search skills
  • Perception of sounds

Thinking skills of children and adolescents are not fully developed until early adulthood. Children have differences in:

  • Speed of processing and decision-making
  • Impulse control and attention span

Adults influence children with their teaching, safety modeling and rules, BUT children and adolescents like to take risks and are more susceptible to peer pressure. The influence of peers becomes highly relevant to behavior and can result in increased risk-taking.

Parents know their children better than anyone. These are generalities according to age and development, and familiarity with these guidelines can help parents make better informed decisions. We used to let my 4-year-old son ride the tractor with his papa who has been driving tractor for years, and is the safest driver I know. Our son loved it. Once I became more familiar with the risk involved we decided that we would keep him off the tractor until he is older. A little disappointment and inconvenience in exchange for a safer farm experience for him is worth it to us.


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