Crashes between cars, horses a concern in U.S. Amish country

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - When a horse owned by an Amish family ran out onto a highway in rural Pennsylvania and collided with the van Amanda Mattern was riding in over the Labor Day weekend, the 37-year-old’s injuries left her in a coma.

An Amish horse and buggy travels on a road in Bart Township, Pennsylvania December 1, 2013. REUTERS/Mark Makela

Unusual as that may sound for 21st-century America, that kind of accident is not uncommon in rural Lancaster County, about 80 miles west of Philadelphia in the heart of the Keystone State’s Amish country, where horses and covered black buggies are a common sight and a challenge for traffic officials to manage.

“Eventually, if you live in Lancaster County, you are going to have a close encounter with a horse and buggy,” said Jason McClune, Mattern’s brother and the transportation director for the Solanco School District in Quarryville, Pennsylvania.

McClune is one of a handful of traffic officials in states with high concentrations of Amish seeking legislation to reduce the risk of horse, buggy and motor vehicle mishaps, such as a minimum age for buggy drivers. Since his sister’s accident, he has been pushing state officials to consider new steps.

In the past 18 months, two of the district’s buses have been involved in accidents with Amish vehicles - and McClune’s wife was involved in another collision with a horse-drawn vehicle, he said.

The descendants of 18th-Century German immigrants who practice the Amish and Old Order Mennonite religions are concentrated in rural sections of Pennsylvania and Ohio, where they live in tight-knit communities and eschew much modern technologies, including automobiles and most electronic devices.

Transportation planners and engineers in Amish country have already adopted a range of techniques to help motorized and horse-drawn vehicles share roads more safely, including widening shoulders, adding some dedicated buggy paths, and in Pennsylvania issuing a driver’s manual for buggy drivers that mirrors the one for motorists.

“It’s the only manual of its kind that we know of,” said Barbara Zortman, of the Center for Traffic Safety, a Pennsylvania-based organization that helped write the manual. “It’s gone to Canada, Germany, across the entire country. This is also in the hands of high school driver education teachers.”

Ohio and Pennsylvania report a rough average of 60 major crashes involving horses and buggies a year over the past decade.

An Ohio Department of Transportation review found that injuries occurred in roughly half of those accidents, with fatalities in about 1 percent of them, a rate that is slightly higher than accidents in which both vehicles are motorized.

That review also revealed that the typical accident involving a horse and buggy occurs when a motorist rear-ends the buggy after misjudging just how slow the horse-drawn vehicle is traveling.

Meetings with Amish leaders over traffic safety, have been productive, Zortman said.

“The Amish in Lancaster County are very cooperative,” Zortman said. “They want to share the roads.”

Accidents can also be expensive for everyone involved. A car can easily sustain thousands of dollars in damage after hitting a horse.

The buggies are pricey too. At an Amish auction in Gordonville, Pennsylvania in October, new buggies sold for as much as $10,000, and used ones went for half that.

According to Pennsylvania statistics going back a decade, auto accidents involving Amish buggies peaked in 2006, when there were 78, a number that dropped to 64 last year. Zortman said the type of accident involving McClune’s sister had only happened once before since PennDOT has kept records.

In addition to minimum age requirements for buggy drivers, McClune has met with state legislators seeking mandatory reflective material for horses and license plates for the buggies.

But legislation dealing with the Amish can have unpredictable results.

In 2007 and 2008, several members of a conservative Amish sect known as the Swartzentrubers were arrested in Kentucky for failure to affix orange reflective triangles to their buggies. The Swartzentrubers, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, argued in court that the orange color violated tenets of their faith that required modesty and plain dress.

Kentucky has since repealed its law requiring orange triangles.

Courts in other states, including Pennsylvania, had upheld the Swartzentrubers’ right to use a gray reflective tape instead.

McClune said his sister faces at least a year before she makes a full recovery from the Labor Day accident.

“My sister was hurt very badly,” he said. “Cars are faster. Society is faster; the horse and buggies are slower. Something should be done to curtail this situation.”

Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis