PENN YAN — Ivan Martin steered his horse and buggy down an empty, rural road near where he and his wife, Anna, were riding recently when a driver roared up from behind as they were heading back to their farmhouse in Yates County, a corner of New York state’s Finger Lakes region heavily populated by Mennonites.
“We heard her tires screech and we were just bracing for the hit,” recalled Ian Martin, 63, who as an Old Order Mennonite avoids driving cars as part of a modest lifestyle that eschews many modern amenities, the same traditions that are also followed by the Amish who live in the state.
With regular speeds of less than 10 mph, these quaint conveyances hardly seem dangerous. Yet they have become a chronic traffic concern as the population of Amish and Mennonites has surged across New York state, producing more horse-drawn buggies than ever on its roadways.
Over the last decade, the state has experienced the fastest growth of Amish and Mennonites in the country, said Judson Reid, an agriculture specialist at Cornell University who studies the two groups. With a combined population of about 24,000, the fifth largest in the United States, New York has seen an influx of Amish and Mennonites from Ohio, Pennsylvania and other states, attracted by affordable and productive farmland, he said.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recorded 71 buggy crashes nationwide, resulting in 84 deaths, for a five-year period from 2011 to 2015. They recorded 15 buggy accidents nationwide in 2016, resulting in 17 fatalities, the last year for which statistics were available.
But there are likely many more accidents that failed to make these counts, said Ron Spike, the sheriff of Yates County, a sparsely populated slice of Northern New York, since New York and most other states do not keep data on accidents involving buggies and do not list it as a discrete category on accident reports.
Law enforcement officials in New York have become increasingly frustrated over the frequency of buggy-to-bumper collisions despite a safety campaign aimed at Amish and Mennonite families who use the buggies to travel to church, markets and social events.
In Martin’s case, the speedy driver braked in time, but his scenario is the most common one, officials say: Vehicles zoom up behind the much slower buggies and rear-end them, often plowing right through the lightweight fiberglass or wooden coach and into the horse.
“You’re doing 55 miles an hour and you come up on a buggy, you only have a few seconds to react,” Spike said. “If they’re hit from behind, somebody’s going to get tossed.”
This is familiar news around the Amish settlements in St. Lawrence County near the Canadian border, said Alfred Nichols, the supervisor of Oswegatchie, New York.
“You hit one of these buggies and they’re like kindling wood — they just kind of explode — and you almost always have to put the horse down,” Nichols said. “They get hit from behind and the person in the buggy flies through the air, because they don’t wear seat belts. They land on their head and it’s a fatality.”
Among Amish and Mennonite families, “Almost every one of them has a relative who’s been in a serious or deadly buggy accident,” said Sgt. Bernard Kennett of the New York State Police. Buggy operators do not need a driver’s license or vehicle insurance. There is no minimum age to drive one and seat belts are not required.
Kennett has been assigned to work with the growing Amish and Mennonite populations in Central New York on traffic issues. Many buggy accidents go unreported, he said, partly because uninsured buggy owners often negotiate cash settlements with drivers and often refuse medical attention.
Joseph A. Gerace, the sheriff of Chautauqua County, said that buggy accidents among Amish populations are “an issue of great concern” locally. A fatal buggy accident in 2016 in his county helped spur the creation of a buggy safety manual modeled on one created in Pennsylvania several years ago, he said.
Other local outreach efforts include officers assigned by Spike to give bicycle and buggy safety presentations at the many local one-room Mennonite schoolhouses.
Mahlon Hurst, an Old Order Mennonite who owns a sawmill in Penn Yan, a hub in the state’s largest horse and buggy settlement of perhaps 1,000 buggies, organizes buggy safety workshops for Mennonite teens, including comprehensive buggy driving sessions for eighth-graders, in a local parking lot.
One long-standing problem, he said, has been the visibility of the buggies, which are almost always black.
More progressive Mennonite and Amish groups have no problem equipping their buggies with battery-operated lights and blinkers, as well as orange triangular signs legally required for slow-moving vehicles. But more conservative sects are stricter about abiding by religious tenets around modesty and are less willing to add safety features that might draw attention.
“Some of them say, ‘It’s bright and it’s flashy, and God was not that way,’” Kennett said. “Some say that orange color signifies the devil or hell fire.” As an alternative, buggy owners may use dark reflective tape and a kerosene lantern with a red lens.
Some Amish elders and clergy regard buggy safety initiatives as usurping God’s role in overseeing their safety, Kennett said. “You or I might use things like air bags and seat belts, but they put their lives in God’s hands, and truly depend on God to look out for them,” he said. “They believe so strongly in God’s will that I’ve had them tell me, ‘That person must have been very special to be called to God at such a young age.’”
As for Martin, he agrees that the battery-powered taillights and running lights on his buggy contribute to safety as do rear brakes activated by a foot pedal.
“It’s really nothing but fabric and a wood frame,” he said of his buggy coach, its plastic windshield and soft side flaps making it easy for passengers to be ejected.
“There’s no seat belts, no air bags, no anti-skid system, and when they’re hit, they smash into matchsticks,” he said. “So we don’t have a lot of protection.”
“Then again, we can get thrown clear into a field and be injured less than being trapped in a car,” he added. “The flimsiness of the buggy actually helps you. So I still feel safer in a buggy than a car.”