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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10 thoughts on “When Cars and Buggies Share the Road”

  1. Your message is a heart breaking one. I think your idea of utilizing the ‘new purposed’ roadbeds is a good one. I don’t really see any other solution, unless maybe bike paths next to highways could be widened. I can foresee many problems with that, though.

    I think that a great many drivers – maybe ALL of us – really have no idea how much slower 10 or 15 miles an hour than a car that is traveling between 45 and 70. It is a shock- a shock as bad as coming around a corner and finding cattle or sheep on the road. There is no comparison to the difference in speed.

    It isn’t always a buggy accident. My uncle in Kentucky was hit and killed while driving a farm tractor on the road. Same problem- the difference in speed.

    My first cousin, with whom I grew up in Oregon, was killed in a buggy accident in Oklahoma when she and her husband were hit from behind; the buggy fell on her. She lived several weeks but her bones and organs were too severely impacted.

    I’ve never lived in a mainly-Amish community. The Amish church in Stuarts Draft, Virginia was much bigger than our Oregon church but it wasn’t close to being as large as some churches in Ohio or Pennsylvania or Indiana. There was no traffic fatality in Draft in the years I lived there.

    1. Elva, thank you for your thoughts. I know there are problems with having separate roads, but could they be solved more easily than sharing the roads? I don’t know.

      Your description about the speed differential is right on… it is a shock like finding a cow or sheep in the road.

      I’m sorry to hear about the fatalities in your extended family. I knew some people in my original community who died in car/buggy accidents. In fact, a first cousin died a week or so after an accident. She died on Christmas Day. She had a twin.

      Several years ago, there was a vanload of Amish visiting communities in NY State when there was a huge accident with one of those really big farm tractors with the high wheels. There were close to a dozen people in the van, and many of them killed, including a husband and wife who had 12 children at home. Ironically, the mother of that family was a daughter to the surviving twin in the accident I mentioned above.

      In this case, the accident happened when they were not in their buggies. But oh so devastating.

      It just sunk in that you grew up in Stuarts Draft. You may know one of the women in my writing group. I’ll email you her name.

      Thank you again for your comments.

  2. In addition, the state needs to provide more training for drivers during driver’s Ed about how to respond when they come up behind a slow moving vehicle, whether it’s a bicycle or a buggy. They should actually have to practice it before they can get their license. And whenever someone renews their license there should be some training about it again.

  3. I like your idea also though the cost would, I’m sure, be one of the first things discussed within a community.Perhaps if the community members and the Amish both helped pay for this it wouldn’t be so much of a burden. I know in many communities the Amish help maintain the roads because of the damage their steel wheels cause. I agree with you also about it often being not just the car drivers fault but also the Amish buggy driver. I will never understand not wanting to keep their family safe by using lights on their buggies. Paul and I travel around many areas where there are Amish and some of the roads with their hills and tight corners are scary for the Amish to say the least. You brought up a good point that i didn’t even think about and that is what the person driving the car has to live with the rest of their lives, especially when it was a true accident and not just someone being careless.The areas that we frequent will often have the tell-tale yellow sign with the black horse and buggy on it warning drivers, but frankly I don’t think they put up enough of them. At the same time there cant be that many people out there who haven’t heard of the Amish and their mode of transportation. You would think they could be a little more cautious when driving through those areas. I read about accidents all the time in the Budget, its so sad. There has got to be away to make these two modes of transportation safely co-exist. I also have trouble wrapping my brain around not allowing the propane to be piped into the house. It would be so much safer. If the Amish community itself payed for the holding tanks and then piped the propane into their homes then they would still be separate from the world, right? I totally understand their wanting to remain “in the world but not of it” but there has got to be a way to remain separate and still keep your family safe.

    1. Pamela, thank you for your comments. I have an update I’ll post soon on the idea of the shared bike path/buggy road idea.

      As far as the safety issues go… there are some of the older bishops who are so afraid of the slippery slope that they will restrict the use of some technologies, even at the expense of the safety of their families. Because many Amish truly believe God has ordained when and how we die, “safety” for their families is out of their hands.

  4. Pingback: About Amish | A Trip Down Memory Lane in Amish Country

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