Saloma Miller Furlong
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When Cars and Buggies Share the Road

Photo by Saloma Miller Furlong

I have set up Google so that it alerts me to anything in the news that comes up with the word “Amish” in it. I cringe at how many news stories are about vehicular accidents involving Amish buggies.  The latest one I read about happened in Minnesota last Friday. Before that there was a hit and run accident in Holmes County, Ohio. In mid-November there was another story about a hit-and-run accident in Sauk County, Wisconsin. Just a few days before that, a man in Ashland, Ohio was charged with vehicular assault, which involved a family of eight being ejected from their buggy. Earlier this month, there was a news story about a community in Tennessee concerned about a sharp rise in the number of car-buggy accidents. I could add a lot more to this list, but keeping it to the stories I know about from this month gives you an idea of what I mean.

It disturbs me how many of the incidents are hit-and-run. I can only imagine the guilt involved in hitting a buggy, even it it was unavoidable. But I cannot imagine leaving the scene of the accident.

For each incident, one can point to the reason why it happened: the driver of the motor vehicle was distracted or drunk; the horse got spooked and ran into the path of a motor vehicle; the road was icy; the sun was blinding the driver of the motor vehicle; the buggy wasn’t lit well enough to be seen; the motor vehicle driver came around a curve and didn’t see the buggy until it was too late… there is such a variety of reasons why these accidents happen. I believe one of the biggest factors in buggies and motor vehicles sharing the road is the speed differential. It can be startling for car drivers moving at sixty miles an hour to come upon a buggy going five, ten, or fifteen miles an hour, even if they are paying attention to their driving.

Most of the time, the motor vehicle drivers are considered at fault, but by no means always. The strictest Amish communities do not allow the orange triangle to be displayed on their vehicles. The only lights they allow is an oil-burning lamp on one side of the buggy. They also use gray reflector tape to outline the back of the buggy. But on a dark or foggy night, or even a stormy day, a driver may not spot a buggy until they are nearly on them.

One late afternoon David, and I were traveling on a secondary paved road in upstate New York when a large semi-truck veered sharply into our lane. David responded by hugging the shoulder, nearly going off the road because of the big drop from pavement to gravel. It was a hair-raising moment. It turned out the truck driver was going way too fast when he came upon a buggy on the shoulder of the road. An Amish man was lighting the buggy lamp on the traffic side of the buggy. Instead of slowing down, the truck driver veered over into our lane. This was a case that one could say both the Amish man and the truck driver were at fault. In any case, we could have been fatalities reported in the news.

The strictest of the Amish are not the only ones whose buggies are hard to see, though. In northern Indiana, where the Amish are considered much more liberal, the buggies are poorly lit. They have battery-powered lights, and they have the orange triangle, but they must be using outdated lights or something because they are not very visible. I know most people don’t like to use the Amish in Geauga County as a good example for anything, but I think their buggies are the most visible. In the front, they have reflectors above the windshield, and bright LED headlights. In the back there is often a whole row of blinking lights, a set of tail lamps, the orange reflector, and reflector tape outlining the back of the buggy.  They have mostly straight roads there, so you can normally see a buggy from a mile away. In addition, they have turning signals, so when you come up behind a buggy at an intersection, you don’t have to guess which way it’s going.

The prevailing attitude in most Amish communities is that whatever happens (even what most of us consider avoidable accidents), it is God’s Will. The belief is that God has ordained our lives before we’re born, including the time and cause of our death. In their way of thinking, being on the road at the time of a fatal accident — well there isn’t anything we can do about that.

I think the Amish with that attitude should realize that not everyone shares their beliefs, and that most people would feel guilty their lives long if they hurt, maimed, or killed someone in an accident. This burden can sometimes be avoided simply by making buggies more visible.

I’ve been thinking about the car-buggy problem for years. According to researchers of Amish culture, their population is growing fast — at the rate of doubling every twenty years. The number of motor vehicles on the roads across this country isn’t dwindling, either. So one can conclude that the car/buggy problem is only going to get worse. That is unless Amish leaders and policy makers in the mainstream culture get together and come up with solutions to this problem.

Back when I was still living in my original community, if anyone mentioned anything about the challenges of cars and buggies sharing the same roads, an Amish person would say, with some indignation in his voice, “The buggies were here first.” As if that settled it. But it really doesn’t settle anything.

I have come up with a radical proposal for a solution to this problem. There are many bike paths that have been built on old railroad beds and through countrysides. What if horse and buggies were to share these paths? In some places, the paths might need to be widened, and perhaps the Amish could offer to have more paths built on their land to connect Amish homes. The restriction of motor vehicles on these paths would have to be strictly enforced. And conversely, buggies would not have the right to use busy paved highways. Cars and buggies could still share dirt roads, but the speed limits could be reduced and enforced to help prevent accidents.

There is another issue that can be resolved with this solution. The pressure has been increasing in many Amish communities for them to put catching devices on their horses to keep manure off the roads. The Amish have resisted this pressure. If they were to share the bike paths with bikers and walkers, it is no longer dangerous for them to stop and clean up after their horses. There could be canisters every so far to discard the manure, which can then be composted to use in gardens.

I know many would think this an impractical solution. And perhaps it is. I bet if some of those intelligent Amish were to think about it long enough, they could come up with better ideas. But they would have to see it as a problem first and then they would have to let go of the belief that it’s out of their hands.


The night before Thanksgiving, an Amish family in my home community had a house fire. There were eleven family members, ranging in age from one year to the parents being in their forties. Most of the family members survived, though their two-year-old did not. Seven family members are being treated for burns in a nearby hospital. The names of the family members have not been mentioned in the reports I’ve read, so I don’t know if they are relatives.

The cause of the fire has not been reported, though it was described as a flash fire — one that burns hot and then extinguishes itself when it depletes the oxygen in the space.

As far as I know, the Amish in Middlefield are still not allowed to have outdoor propane tanks. Last I knew (2006), there were a few elderly bishops who were holding onto the rules against it. The younger bishops usually look to the older ones to set the rules. Some Amish who have moved out of Geauga County to start other settlements have changed this rule and do allow outdoor propane tanks. But in the Geauga community, many families have floor lamps with five gallons of fuel in their base. I’m not actually sure whether they are fueled by white gas or propane, but I do know they are dangerous to use inside homes.

More details will likely be revealed in future reports. I will let you know when I find out more.

 

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