Program teaches safe driving tips to farmworkers

(Sept. 26, 2005 - By Kerri Ginis | From The Fresno Bee)

Thousands of farmworkers are commuting daily on rural county roads now that it’s peak harvest time in the Valley.

The problem is that many of them don’t know what a yield sign is or what a "no passing" lane means. Accidents are more likely to occur, putting both farmworkers and other drivers at risk.

But an effort to provide more education to farmworkers about safe driving practices is working to change that.

The Farm Worker Motor Vehicle Safety Project kicked off in Tulare and Fresno counties in 2003 and has expanded to Kings, Kern and Madera counties. Since its inception, nearly 100,000 farmworkers have received information through the program.

"Many of these people come here and they drive because they have to get to and from work, but they’ve never had any real education on driving," said Soledad Caldera-Gammage, a farmworker community liaison who does outreach for the program. "They’re very hungry for the knowledge. They want to learn more."

The program provides educational materials in both English and Spanish to farmworkers and their employers with information about what causes accidents and descriptions of road signs. A 10-minute video, with a story about safe driving that plays out like a Spanish soap opera, is the newest educational material being distributed.

Outreach is done at many local health fairs and community events attended by farmworkers. Program officials set up a game that challenges farmworkers to identify road signs. Those who answer correctly receive prizes.

These simple techniques appear to be working. Officials believe the number of accidents involving farmworkers driving to and from work is on the decline.

Statistics aren’t yet available because some of the data compiled by the California Highway Patrol on accident rates still is being analyzed. The most recent information is from 2000-01, when there were 42 crashes in Tulare and Fresno counties involving farmworkers traveling to and from work in private vehicles. The most common reason for those accidents was people weren’t obeying posted speed limits.

The Farm Worker Motor Vehicle Safety program targets farmworkers who are traveling in their own cars or carpooling with others rather than those who are driving farmworker vans.

The program also provides materials to their employers and growers, so they can hold training sessions on the importance of safe driving.

Abel Serrano, a farm labor contractor who works for Hall Management Corp., said he has seen the effect the program has had on the farmworkers he manages. The number of accidents they’ve been involved in has decreased dramatically since the program began.

"It’s been a total turnaround," said Serrano, who estimates he works with between 2,500 and 5,000 farmworkers depending on the time of year. "I’m just hoping that it continues. It’s such a good program and it’s so friendly to the worker."

The Center for Agricultural Business at California State University, Fresno in conjunction with the California Highway Patrol received a $280,000 federal grant to start the program in 2003. Officials secured an additional $280,000 grant in 2004 to expand it to Kings, Kern and Madera counties through July 2006.

Now the push is on to get the program operating statewide. Officials hope to find enough money to keep the program going and introduce it in other counties.

"We’ve had lots of requests from other areas who want the information," said Kimberly Naffziger, program development specialist for the Center for Agricultural Business. "So we definitely see the need."

The reporter can be reached at kginis@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6317.

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