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.”