The bright yellow highway signs warning that horse-drawn buggies are sharing the road aren’t enough to prevent all accidents. With Amish communities expanding and automobile speeds increasing, collisions between cars and buggies are all too common.
For example, Delaware State Police are investigating the death of man and serious injuries to his wife following a hit and run crash on August 31, 2017. The Dover Post reported that 55-year-old Ervin Miller was driving a horse-drawn buggy when he tried to turn left into a store. A car hit the buggy, throwing Miller and his 55-year-old wife onto the road.
Miller was taken to a local hospital where he later was pronounced dead. His wife was admitted there in critical condition. Witnesses said the force of the impact with the car demolished the buggy. The horse ran from the scene and later turned up at the Miller home. Its condition was not reported.
The news story is one of hundreds posted on a website called MapMinistry.org. Map stands for Mission to Amish People, an organization founded by Joe Keim. He was raised in Ohio in an Old Order Amish community, but has since left the faith. Now he says he evangelizes to Amish people about Christianity and helps people who want to leave the Amish faith, helping them acclimate to the “English” or non-Amish world. (Keim says he believes Amish place too much emphasis on rules, traditions, and outward appearances and not enough emphasis on salvation through Jesus Christ.)
One piece of MAP’s outreach to the Amish is keeping track of news events related to the Amish and linking news stories to the MAP website. For a time, Keim says, he included buggy accidents in with the other news items but came to realize it was a serious enough issue that it should have a stronger focus. Now his website features photos and summaries of Amish buggy accidents across the country and is kept current. Keim is not sure if this information is reaching the Amish themselves. “Their level of communication is not what ours is, but as their population has grown so have buggy accidents of Amish.”
Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Wisconsin, New York, Michigan, Missouri and Kentucky have the highest populations of groups specifically Amish-affiliated. In 2017 Pennsylvania and Ohio populations are estimated to be near 75,000, each, with Indiana populations at about 53,000.
The use of technology varies among various Amish groups. Most do not use mechanized equipment or power tools. But with horse-drawn buggies, they go the same sorts of places that others reach by car. That includes trips to the grocery store and to school.
In some places local authorities and even some Amish groups are working together to avoid collisions. However, other Amish resist advice to make themselves and their conveyances more visible to motorists and see those educational efforts as a violation of their religious rights.
One problem is higher automobile speeds thanks to modernization like road paving and widening, Keim said. “All of it has added up to what we have today; faster drivers, and buggies that are still slow and hard to spot,” Keim said. That means even if a driver notices a yellow highway sign and sees a dark shape in the lane far ahead, that driver might not realize how quickly he will close on a horse trotting along at just a few miles per hour.
Some states in heavily Amish areas address potential traffic conflict by trying to regulate how buggies must be illuminated. However, Keim says many Amish reject these rules. Their approach to life is to live without modern technology and to not draw attention to themselves through behavior or appearance, he explains. That means items such as lights, blinkers, and even reflective material on buggies are often rejected. “It is not that they want their members to be hit by a car and die, but they tend to put their lives in God’s hands,” Keim said. “That’s the end argument if there is an accident and somebody dies—it must have been God’s will.”
However, Keim sees gradual acceptance for safety improvement among some Amish groups. “New generations come in and they are a little more open and progressive in this area.” For example, in Indiana and Pennsylvania, church leaders are working with outside authorities and going as far they have to, short of changing over to a car. Some buggies are illuminated with battery-operated lights, some have headlights or blinkers or reflective tape. Keim says these are not the majority, however. Other more traditional churches will not adopt the hunter safety model of marking their conveyances with blaze orange color reflectors, because it cuts to the heart of their culture of not drawing attention to themselves. Also, some will only use one kerosene lanterns on their buggies rather than two, because, in part, they are concerned about frightening the horses.
Keim adds that the horses are not injured in collisions as often as it might seem they would be. “It is surprising how quickly they can come unhitched if the buggy isn’t squarely hit from back.” Drivers might see the buggy in time to swerve so they might sideswipe the buggy’s left rear corner. “The impact might not affect the horse as much,” he said.
The Millers—the couple in the Delaware accident—were part of that state’s only Amish settlement, which has been situated near Dover for more than 100 years. Delaware has a very small Amish population compared to other states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. Amish and other groups that shun modern technology such as automobiles are expanding beyond their traditional rural territories, they share the road with drivers not used to them.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration tracks all manner of fatal motor vehicle traffic crashes by what they call the “first harmful event.” The category “collision with objects not fixed” includes a subcategory for ridden animal or animal-drawn conveyance. That might include a single horse rider trotting along a road shoulder, or a horse-drawn wedding carriage, or a buggy used by members of Amish-affiliated groups or other societies that eschew modern technology.
The NHTSA’s fatality reporting system shows that in recent years the number of fatal crashes has been steady. From 2011 through 2015, 71 crashes killed 80 people. Although NHTSA does not map locations of these collisions, some state highway departments do keep such data. Collisions between motorists and horse-drawn buggies are concentrated in areas where Amish and similar communities are located.
An Ohio Department of Transportation report (PDF) tracks all crashes that have occurred between a motor vehicle and a horse drawn Amish buggy from 2007-2016. They report 1,412 total crashes with 25 fatalities and 208 serious injuries in that period. Nearly two-thirds of all crashes occurred during daylight and 78 percent of all crashes occurred on dry roads. The most common crash type was sideswipe-passing crashes, accounting for 52 percent of all crashes statewide for this period. Much of the time, a motorist traveling too closely behind a buggy and attempting to pass was the cause of the side-swipe. Areas of Ohio where the Amish predominantly live and travel accounted for almost 79 percent of crashes statewide.
Several states with high concentration of horse-drawn vehicles have looked for ways to reduce collisions. The Ohio DOT’s website has a page intended to help motorists drive safely among the Amish. Ohio has a large Amish region attractive to tourists, so Ohio DOT points out that driving in Amish communities is different than driving on other rural or urban highways. “In Amish communities, you will see horse-drawn buggies or equipment on the roadway as they travel to town or the fields. Statistics show that more than 65 percent of all traffic deaths occur in rural areas and 50 percent of those deaths are on country roads. Ohio reports, on average, more than 120 buggy accidents a year.”
Pennsylvania DOT publishes a manual (PDF) specifically for horse and buggy drivers, not geared specifically to the Amish. The manual’s introduction states: “Now more than ever, we, as horse and buggy drivers, need to be careful and observe the basic rules of safety when traveling on today’s busy roads. There is more traffic going much faster than ever before and we must do what we can to assure our own safety as well as that of motorists with whom we must share the road. We’ve created a horse and buggy driver safety manual to assist in this effort. Proper operation of your horse and buggy on these busy roads can greatly reduce crashes.”
Joe Keim says that Amish and other similar communities are growing rapidly and are spreading into new areas of the country where people might not be used to seeing them. “On average, every three-and-a-half weeks a brand new community springs up in America,” Keim said. “There are more and more buggy accidents.”
Julianne Couch is the author of The Small-Town Midwest: Resilience and Hope in the Twenty-First Century.