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Amid sugar beet truck accidents, some question Minnesota, North Dakota regulations for ag drivers

GRAND FORKS - Laws exempting farmers from certain truck driving regulations have been on the books for decades, but while farmers and others believe them vital to a smooth harvest, others are concerned they put drivers at risk.

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A beet truck shows signs of significant damage Saturday after an accident on state Highway 11 near Donaldson, Minn. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service
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GRAND FORKS – Laws exempting farmers from certain truck driving regulations have been on the books for decades, but while farmers and others believe them vital to a smooth harvest, others are concerned they put drivers at risk.

In North Dakota and Minnesota, drivers normally are required to have a commercial driver's license to operate trucks, but farmers and their employees are allowed to haul crops without obtaining a CDL as long as the truck has a special designation and remains within 150 miles of the farm after crossing state lines.

All a person needs to drive a farm truck is a valid driver's license – no matter their experience level.

The sugar beet harvest season is a race against Mother Nature, when hundreds of beet truckers work around the clock to haul beets to processing plants throughout the region, sometimes within a 10- to 14-day period, leading to increased traffic across the Red River Valley.

During a peak harvest day, up to 50,000 truckloads of sugar beets will arrive at American Crystal Sugar Co.'s 38 receiving sites, according to company spokesman Jeff Schweitzer.

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Sugar beet drivers have been involved in serious accidents recently, raising questions about their qualifications.

On Tuesday, a 50-year-old man driving a truck loaded with sugar beets was trying to turn at an intersection west of Borup, Minn., when the truck rolled, according to the Norman County Sheriff's Office.

The driver, Jescie Flores, suffered serious injuries and was flown to a Fargo hospital. Flores did not have a CDL, according to Norman County Sheriff Jeremy Thornton.

In October 2013, an 18-year-old beet truck driver was trying to turn too quickly onto an East Grand Forks, Minn., street when the truck flipped, spilling beets onto the road and leaving the 18-year-old with stitches.

A 2009 accident in which an 18-year-old woman was killed after a beet truck driver with a series of violations ran a red light and struck the woman's vehicle near Wahpeton, N.D., spurred debate over regulations of farm truck drivers during the North Dakota 2011 legislative session.

But Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, is skeptical regulations like requiring farm truckers to obtain a CDL would make roads any safer.

"I would love to say that would solve the accidents, but it probably won't," he said. "The CDL is not that hard to get. Most drivers, with a little bit of practice, can do it."

Willie Huot, a North Dakota State University Extension agent for Grand Forks County, said the key to avoiding accidents is being conscious about safety.

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"Just because one does have a CDL, that would not be any assurance there wouldn't be an accident," he said.

Besides, Huot argued, it would be "impossible" to find enough available drivers with CDLs to work the beet harvest.

"Drivers with CDLs make a living driving trucks. So they're full-time employees," he said, saying they wouldn't be available to drive beet trucks the two to four weeks beet harvest runs.

But North Dakota Highway Patrol Trooper Jerry Olson believes more controls are common sense, be they a CDL requirement or minimum experience requirements.

"If we truly want to prevent the crashes, I think at a minimum there needs to be some training requirements," he said.

"The only requirement (to driving truck) is the farmer putting you behind the wheel," he said.

Duane Maatz, executive director of the Red River Valley Sugar Beet Growers Association, rejected the idea that most of the sugar beet drivers are inexperienced.

Maatz said most beet truckers have worked the harvest in previous years and are connected to the farm.

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"Most drivers have a history," he said.

Maatz argued it did not make economic sense to hire inexperienced or careless drivers either, saying farmers do not want insurance premiums on their trucks to rise, and they don't want their equipment damaged or their workers harmed.

"I don't think any (farmer) simply turns a new employee loose without knowing they can handle the job," he said. "It's far too big a risk for the farm operation and for everyone involved."

But Olson, the state trooper, said it happens nevertheless.

Don Willis, a full-time truck driver employed by the Winnipeg-based B.S. Harris Transport, was surprised to learn farm truck drivers hauling crops are not required to have a CDL.

He paused while fueling his truck Wednesday at the Simonson's Travel Center on Gateway Drive in Grand Forks to say, "That's just amazing."

"To me that means pretty much any Joe" could get behind the wheel of a farm truck, he said.

"What I find with these people that don't have experience, they drive these vehicles like they're cars," he said, referring generally to drivers without much experience.

Beet processors, such as Moorhead-based American Crystal Sugar Co. and Wahpeton-based Minn-Dak Farmers Co-op, do not own the beet trucks, nor do they employ the drivers. The farmers own and insure their trucks and hire the drivers.

Ultimately, it falls on the farmers to examine the potential drivers' qualifications and make an educated hiring decision-a decision complicated by the general lack of farm truckers during harvest-Huot said.

"Every year there's always a shortage of drivers to some degree," he said. "That puts a lot of pressure on sugar beet growers to find people qualified to help them with their harvest."

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