Consistent Standards

While driving home on a busy state highway, around 8:45 p.m., this time of year it is very dark. I found myself shocked to witness what appeared to be an antique tractor pulling a newer trailer carrying a load of round hay bales with absolutely no lights.

While the vehicle’s operator was driving on the shoulder and did have a slow-moving vehicle (SMV) sign on the back of the trailer, both my wife – who was traveling with me – and I felt the situation was an accident waiting to happen.

I was reminded of another occasion where I was driving behind what appeared to be a flashing Christmas tree with a SMV sign attached and multiple amber and red lights far to the right, far to the left, way up in the air, and down near the ground, some blinking, others not. In both instances, the vehicles were traveling significantly slower than road traffic and prominently featured an SMV sign. No matter the situation, I want the equipment operator, fellow travelers, and my family to properly recognize and avoid slow moving equipment.

When I find myself driving behind another Department of Transportation-approved highway vehicle, I know it will have brake lights and turn signals that operate in a consistent manner – regardless of the vehicle. There remain opportunities in equipment lighting and marking, as well as other standards, to develop consistent approaches that are easily understood and recognizable regardless of the type of machine.  Most off-road equipment travels at a slow speed and usually features an SMV sign when sharing the road. Thankfully, most modern equipment is lighted in such a manner that it is sure to attract the attention of high-speed vehicle operators.

AEM serves the agricultural, construction, forestry, mining and utility equipment sectors. As such, we are exposed to the standards and regulations applicable to a broad range of equipment. We have long been a proponent of the benefits of standardization and work toward common standards and regulations, regardless of jurisdiction. Successes – such as the federally adopted agricultural lighting and marking standards –  benefit the industry by minimizing the number of options equipment manufacturers must provide. Imagine the challenges of managing 50 individual and unique state requirements for the United States, coupled with Canada’s Provincial requirements and those requirements of the many international markets. The challenges seem almost insurmountable.

In addition to common standards for geographic regions, there may be opportunities to commonize certain standards across machine forms. Why is the lighting and marking on construction equipment different from that of agricultural equipment when both operate on roadways? The hazards are identical, and common notifications are more easily recognized if they are consistent.

In some instances it may make sense to have differing standards – such as those associated with levels of autonomy, or other more complex issues having to do with reliability and safety. Consider the fact that the Society of Automotive Engineers has defined levels of autonomy. Similar definitions are available for mining equipment and are currently being developed for construction and ag equipment.

Although whenever possible, consistency will provide a wealth of benefits. Most manufacturers draw upon the same suppliers, regardless of the equipment design. Consistency could result in fewer repair parts, similar means of product support, common design efforts, and better customer support recognizing that, in some instances, “less is more.” Furthermore, the development of standards applicable across industry sectors could result in fewer meetings, fewer attendees, fewer standards and regulations to monitor, and less involvement in subject matter expert time. The application of common standards would also be easier in the context of the design efforts for companies that develop multiple product types.

In some instances, the differences in standards are enough to necessitate being understood; however, they are close enough to be extremely confusing. There are many reasons to customize equipment for a given task. Examples include functional requirements to do the intended job, and environmental requirements of both the working environment and the impact on the environment. Regardless, safety continues to remain at the top of the list of reasons for consistency.

There may be many –and legitimate – objections to having common standards. We all recognize the current system is working. It’s always a concern that larger committees could potentially slow down the process, or make a process close to impossible to proceed. Additional objections may be borne of challenges years in the making, particularly when we consider the international communities. Finally, one very important consideration is legacy equipment. Legacy equipment can present a real challenge when moving forward, especially when it comes to safety-related topics. The equipment industry has historically made products capable of lasting longer than what's seen with on-highway equipment. For example, it’s not unusual for 40-year-old equipment to be in operation. While this is a testament to the quality and durability of the equipment, it should not be a factor in deterring progress.

In most instances, we must consider the "state-of-the-art" at the time that something is developed. It may be that the machine I saw a few weeks back never had lights. In that case, it remains the responsibility of the equipment owner to either update it to make it safe for the conditions of use, or not use the machine in that situation. The last thing I want to hear is an avoidable accident occurring as a result of antiques used in today’s environment. This unlit, poorly marked antique brought the problem home to me in a meaningful way. My wife and I make this drive over 20 times each week, and we want to continue to do so in safety and comfort for years to come.

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