Sen. Shirkey is looking for ways to improve road safety for Amish res­i­dents in Hillsdale County.
(Photo: Wiki­media)

State Sen. Mike Shirkey, R‑Clarklake, says requiring Amish res­i­dents to reg­ister their buggies would be his last resort in pre­serving Hillsdale County roads and keeping drivers safe.

“Reg­is­tration would take things too far at this point in the process,” Shirkey said.

Since Feb­ruary, Shirkey has met with several Amish bishops in Hillsdale County to discuss options for making roads safer for both auto­mobile and buggy drivers. He said he would like to see the Amish com­munity agree on a self-imposed solution — such as improved lighting — rather than pass a new law.

A reg­is­tration fee would help fix road damage caused by buggy wheels and horse shoes. Hillsdale County Road Com­mission manager John Sanders said the buggy wheels make grooves and pockets in the asphalt, which even­tually turn into large pot­holes. Sanders said he does not think reg­is­tration fees would cover the costs for repairing the roads, espe­cially because the repairs only last a short time. Last year, the county spent $470,000 to repair Hillsdale Road, and it only took a few weeks for horse-and-buggy travel to damage it again.

Shirkey has been looking for ways to improve safety on the roads as well. He said that finding a solution depends partly on the will­ingness of Amish res­i­dents to vol­un­tarily pursue common safety guide­lines. He said he was dis­ap­pointed after seeing a photo of a recent accident involving two young Amish men skate­boarding behind a horse-drawn buggy.

“If a police officer saw that behind anybody’s vehicle, there would be an infraction there,” he said. “It is very dis­ap­pointing to see evi­dence of this kind of behavior, because it doesn’t help their case. It demon­strates they are not sen­sible of common-sense laws and safety prac­tices.”

Hillsdale County Sheriff Timothy Parker said acci­dents involving a buggy and an auto­mobile only occur around two or three times every year. He said the real issue is the severity of the acci­dents, since they usually involve more injuries than auto­mobile acci­dents do.

Parker said it would be ideal to find a single lighting system that would help auto­mobile drivers dis­tin­guish between buggies and other auto­mo­biles, but added that it is often dif­ficult to find agreement. Cur­rently, Amish res­i­dents use several dif­ferent lighting systems, including reflectors, flashing lights, and even lights on the back of the buggy, resem­bling tail­lights on auto­mo­biles.

Hillsdale County Pros­e­cuting Attorney Neal Brady said some Amish sects are not willing to use the slow moving vehicle tri­angle because they find its osten­ta­tious orange color to be in con­flict with their religion.

Anna Schwartz, a Hillsdale County Amish res­ident, said that while her com­munity does not use the SMV tri­angle, other Amish com­mu­nities, such as some in Indiana, do.

Brady said the main problems on the road are the dif­ference in speed between buggies and auto­mo­biles and the vision imped­iment caused by hilly areas. Acci­dents are most com­monly due to the inat­ten­tiveness of motor vehicle drivers.

“The main thing is that people driving vehicles have to be attentive and have to be aware,” Brady said.

Amish res­ident Esther Lengacher said that her buggy has reflectors, blinkers, and red lights on the back sides, but she says she does not always feel safe on the road.

“We just really have got to watch,” she said. “You have to look back as much as in front.”