As I zipped along Jonesville Road on my way back from a fall-break camping trip, I was pleased that I was making good time. It had been a refreshing excursion, but my head was already spinning as I considered the many assignments that awaited me on campus.
Then I spotted a strange, black vehicle with feet and a bobbing head about a quarter ‑mile away. It was an Amish buggy, and I was approaching it rapidly. I braked lightly, and then more forcibly. I didn’t come close to hitting it, but the buggy caught me off-guard.
Others have not been so lucky.
Horse-drawn buggies are dangerous for both Amish and motorized-vehicle drivers. They should be banned from driving on public roadways.
So far this year, six children have died in five accidents between buggies and motorized vehicles in Michigan. Three people died in Branch County when a pick-up truck collided with an Amish buggy in June.
From 2014 to 2019, eight people were killed in accidents between buggies and motorized vehicles in Michigan. In Pennsylvania, 23 people died in buggy-and-car collisions between 2007 and 2016, according to the State Department of Transportation.
A study for the Ohio Department of Transportation counted 1,412 collisions between horses and buggies and motorized vehicle from 2007 to 2016, an average of one every 2.32 days in the state. Of the crashes, 78% occurred on dry roads, 65% happened in daylight, and 76% took place on non-intersection portions of roadways. Even in the safest driving conditions, horse-drawn buggies present an often unavoidable hazard.
With frames of wood and fabric, buggies are no match for a two-ton metal vehicle. In a New York Times article, Alfred Nichols, supervisor of a town in New York’s Amish country, described the effects of an accident.
“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.
Three Amish children were killed in an accident near Chester Township, 25 miles southwest of Lansing, as they commuted home from school by buggy last July. The driver of the motorized vehicle was an 83-year-old man. Although he had shared the road with Amish drivers for decades, he had difficulty seeing because he was driving into the sun, and didn’t realize he was overtaking the carriage until it was too late.
Small and dark, buggies are difficult to detect. They often take me by surprise, and, because I’m young, I can see well and react quickly. But not all drivers are so agile. In 2016, nearly 42 million Americans over the age of 65 were licensed to drive.
Even if you can see them, it’s often difficult to reduce speed in time to avoid hitting buggies, especially on roads with a posted speed of 55 mph. On freeways with 70-mph speed limits, the minimum speed is 55 mph, 78.75% of the posted speed, as it would be unsafe and disrupt the flow of traffic if a vehicle traveled any slower. Yet Amish buggies travel at around 10 mph, just 18.18% of the 55 mph speed limit.
Motorists share the road with other slow-moving entities, including bicycles, golf carts, and riding horses. These forms of transportation also pose challenges, but are smaller and often drive on the side or shoulder of the road. Even if they drive on the roadway, it’s much easier to swerve to avoid a collision with them than with buggies, which take up most of a car lane.
Horse-drawn carriages are particularly dangerous on hilly roads. Had I come upon the first buggy just below the crest of a hill at 55 mph, I would likely not have been able to stop in time to prevent a collision.
Considerate motorists know to slow down when driving near and passing horses and buggies, but horses are skittish and are sometimes perturbed by even respectfully-driven vehicles. Spooked horses are known to damage passing cars, often injuring themselves and their drivers in the process.
There is no minimum age or skills test for buggy drivers. Most states mandate that buggies be equipped with reflectors and lights, but some strict Amish people believe such additions violate their religious views, and so they refuse to comply.
Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R‑Clarklake, Mich., and State Representative Eric Leutheuser, R‑Hillsdale, Mich., have sponsored three companion bills that would impose tighter regulations on buggy drivers. Introduced in the state house and senate Nov. 7, they come in response to a recent rise in deadly collisions between buggies and motorized vehicles.
The bills would require buggies to be equipped with at least two lights on the front and rear, and would compel buggy drivers to use them between dusk and dawn and in inclement weather. To minimize damage to roads, they would ban carbide on the bottom of horseshoes and require buggies to sport rubber tires.
Additionally, the bills would allow counties to require owners to register buggies before driving them on public roadways.
Shirkey and Leutheuser hope that the bills will increase safety on roadways in Michigan, which has the fastest-growing Amish population.
The proposed regulations are better than nothing, but they don’t go far enough.
In the aftermath of a fatal collision, a sheriff in Eaton County, Michigan was asked what could be done to prevent future accidents.
“People need to be more cognizant there will be buggies out there,” he said, according to The New York Times.
Being aware of Amish buggies does not make them faster or more visible. Even stauncher stipulations will do little to make roads safer.
Michigan must ban the buggies.
Madeleine Miller is a senior studying international business and a reporter for The Collegian.