Tractor rollovers have always been a serious problem in this country. But with the introduction of rollover protective structures (ROPS), the number of deaths and injuries from tractor upsets were reduced dramatically. Because tractors are generally very sturdy machines, however, their longevity is such that there are many older non-ROPS tractors still in use. Rollover protective structures became standard in the mid-1980s. For a period of years many manufacturers in the early- to mid-80s made the ROPS a “delete option”. In other words, the dealers would offer the rollover protective structure as an option.
The average person, being unaware of the number of people being killed by tractor rollovers, often would elect not to pay the extra money for the rollover protection. The purchaser had to sign a ROPS acknowledgement so the manufacturer could defend any future claim. Unfortunately, these tractors have been passed from user to user without the warning given by the dealers.
When a tractor is equipped with a rollover protective structure and the operator is using the available seatbelt, the death and severe injury rate drops dramatically. An operator of a tractor that is not equipped with a rollover protective structure should never use a seatbelt. The last thing you want to do is be strapped to a tractor that rolls over with no protection.
When folks think of tractor rollovers they usually think of a side rollover where a tractor is operated on a slope. That’s not the only way that tractor accidents happen. As a matter of fact, the most dangerous tractor rollover is a rear tip where the tractor front end rises and the machine rears over onto the operator. On the average, 20% to 30% of tractor rollovers are backwards rollovers. Rear rollovers are usually fatal.
The chances of surviving a tractor upset without injury are not good unless the tractor is equipped with rollover protection. In a backwards tip, the tractor hood can hit the ground in less than 1-½ seconds after the front wheels begin rising. After the wheels on the front of the tractor begin to rise, the operator has less than 3/4 of a second to realize what is happening and to take preventative action as in pressing the clutch. Because of perception/reaction delays, frequently the tractor is past the critical point of no return before the operator is able to do anything to keep it from falling on him.
Many times rear upsets are caused by rear axle torque. Normally, the axle rotates when the clutch is released and the tractor moves ahead. But if the axle rotation is restrained in some way, for example in starting a heavy load or when the drive wheels are frozen to the ground, the twisting force of the axle can lift the front wheels off the ground and rotate the tractor backwards around the rear axle. If it’s easier for the engine power to lift the front wheels of the tractor than it is to move the tractor ahead or spin the wheels, the tractor will tip over backwards. Oftentimes there are rear upsets when the operator is trying to move heavy structures like pulling up trees or stumps. Hitching the chain or cable higher on the tractor rear end increases the chance that the tractor can be upset to the rear. It is best to hitch loads only to the draw bar. Many people do not appreciate the danger in hitching above the draw bar. Most importantly always use a tractor with a rollover protective structure and seatbelt.
Side rollovers occur more frequently than rear tip ups, but are less likely to cause severe injury or death. Side rollovers occur when the center of gravity moves outside its base of stability. The tractor’s base of stability is determined by the location (width) of its rear wheels and the type of chassis support on the front wheels. Things that can be done to prevent side rollovers are:
But even with these precautions rollovers can and do happen. Therefore, the most important way to prevent injury or death from tractor rollover – because of their unpredictability – is to have a good rollover protective structure and use the seatbelt. For side rollovers ROPS will limit the tractor to a 90 degree roll in most cases. It’s better to put a fence at the edge of a cliff than to have an ambulance waiting in the valley below. If you would like more information on this subject, contact Greg Allen, who is in the firm’s Personal Injury/Product Liability Section, at 800-898-2034 or by email at Greg.Allen@beasleyallen.com. Greg has successfully handled a number of tractor rollover cases over the years.
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