Driver's license rules relaxed at beet harvest time
FARGO -- Sugar beet truck crashes in the Red River Valley this week raise questions about the rules pertaining to who can and can't drive the large trucks used in the beet harvest.
One thing that may not be well-known: When it comes to harvest time, the normal rules go out the window.
Anyone with a valid driver's license can haul sugar beets in trucks that normally require a commercial driver's license to operate.
Also, so-called "hours of service" rules, which limit how long a driver can be behind the wheel before taking a rest, are suspended in the interest of helping farmers move produce.
Federal law allows such exceptions and both North Dakota and Minnesota law provide for them, to the consternation of some law enforcement officers.
"It always kind of baffled me," said Sgt. Rick Fjestad of the Minnesota State Patrol, who in the past has worked as an over-the-road truck driver.
Fjestad said drivers inexperienced with large trucks may not be aware of how much extra time is required to stop a vehicle that may weigh more than 50,000 pounds when loaded with beets.
"It is a concern when they're driving that big equipment," Fjestad said.
Lt. Kyle Kirchmeier of the North Dakota Highway Patrol agreed, stating drivers may not understand how trucks behave differently from cars when it comes to things like the air brakes used in big trucks.
The North Dakota Highway Patrol investigated Tuesday's crash in Wahpeton that killed 18-year-old Annie Gjesdal.
Gjesdal died after her car collided with a beet truck that ran a red light, according to the North Dakota Highway Patrol, which will forward the findings of its investigation to the Richland County states attorney's office, which will review the case for possible charges.
Court records show that the driver of the beet truck has convictions in North Dakota for driving after suspension of her license and a DWI conviction from 1995 in Clay County.
Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist said it has become increasingly difficult for area beet growers to find people willing to drive trucks during harvest time.
Fjestad agreed, stating that some jobs are going to people who have come from far away to take the work.
He said two people involved in a beet truck rollover in Wilkin County, Minn., Thursday morning were from Michigan. No one was seriously hurt, according to the Wilkin County Sheriff's Department.
Fjestad said the Minnesota State Patrol attempts to lessen potential problems beet hauling presents by conducting informational meetings with farmers up and down the valley.
The message: Make sure drivers have valid licenses and that they understand the dangers from things like fatigue and inexperience.
Fjestad said in recent years the number of serious crashes involving beet trucks has dropped.
"We want to believe it's because we're going out and visiting with the growers before the season starts, letting them know we're going to be watching ... we're going to be checking driver qualifications," Fjestad said.