Public Highway Means the road is for EVERYONE… not just autos

Mary Bell: Courtesy is key when sharing roads with Amish

Rochester Post Bulletin Friday, April 24, 2015 6:59 pm

It has been my privilege in recent years to become friends with several members of the Amish community in the southeastern corner of our state. One afternoon earlier this month, I visited three Amish friends. At each home, I was told about a buggy accident that occurred in March, which resulted in the deaths of a young father and his 6-month-old daughter.

Each person told the story with deep, heartfelt sadness. Although the accident took place near Gilman, Wis., everyone reacted as if they were neighbors, reflecting a deep-rooted belonging to a larger community.

According to news reports, Jerry Stutzman, his wife and daughter left home early on March 28 to help a neighbor move. The father and daughter were killed when a pickup rammed their buggy from behind. The buggy was left in pieces, and the horse had to be destroyed.

While driving home from my visits, I felt an incredible sadness and asked myself, “What can I do?” The vibrant Amish community has many horse-powered buggies traveling our public roads, share space with gigantic agricultural vehicles, snowplows, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles and visitors.

To improve the odds of my friends staying safe in their buggies, I returned to ask them what motor vehicle drivers could do to help avoid accidents.

A 21-year-old Amish girl from Fillmore County told she has ended up in the ditch twice, once when her buggy was clipped by a bus and another time when a wheel was struck by a car. While the bus driver stopped to offer help, the car kept traveling.

Her message was to remind people to check their rear-view mirrors to make sure a buggy they passed remains on the road. Then if something bad happens, she hopes the driver stops to offer aid.

Another Amish buggy driver with more than 50 years of experience at the reins said he once met a car at a four-way stop. The car’s headlights were so bright, the horse and driver were blinded. Neither could see the road, so the buggy went down a sharp drop off, tipped and landed on its side. The lesson was obvious: Dim your lights when approaching a horse and buggy.

Horses are not mindless creatures, my friend told me as he recalled a time when his horse saw an accident about to happen and actually skidded to a stop.

Dust clouds on gravel roads and darkness provide their own challenges. My Amish friends note vehicles of all sorts — horse-drawn and gas-powered — need to slow down when dust creates a “fog” that limits visibility. As for the dark of night, horses can see extremely well after the sun goes down, but extra care still needs to be taken.

One of my Amish friends notes buggy drivers have their own responsibilities, especially at night. They need to keep lamps clean and make sure reflector tape has a good shine.

To get a better sense of what it’s like to be in a buggy, I asked another friend for a ride. She pulled her buggy out from the barn, got the horse rigged up and told me to step in.

Her horse had large black leather blinders to keep its eyes focused on the road. While the horse can see and hear what is coming in front of the buggy, it can only hear what’s coming from behind. Since her buggy has no mirrors, my friend said she relies on her horse’s body language to tell her what might be approaching from behind.

With the deafening sound of large, metal wheels rolling over the gravel road, we eventually approached the paved highway. We turned onto the paved shoulder along Highway 52 and were able to hear each other talk and listen to the world around us.

At the end of the day, I had learned how helpful it would be for people to slow their vehicles and dim their lights when an oncoming buggy is seen. If possible, give buggies some space in case the horses act up.

Also, try to minimize noise by waiting until you are a block away before accelerating. Jake brakes on trucks and honking horns can spook a horse and literally scare it to death.

I believe nobody wants to be the cause of an accident. Mutual courtesy and understanding may be the best remedy. And, what’s wrong with taking a little time to slow down and become more aware of each other?

Mary Bell, of Lanesboro, has coordinated Amish classes for Eagle Bluff’s Skills School.