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A cautionary tale: Car-buggy accidents increase; police say inattentive motorists largely to blame

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CANTON — They're hard to see at night. They need brighter lights. They should have more and better reflectors.

Ask north country motorists about sharing the road with Amish buggies, and such concerns are a common refrain.

But ask police officers who handle an increasing number of collisions between cars and buggies, and the answer will more likely turn back toward the motorist.

“All the Amish buggy markings are effective if we as motorists are doing what we are supposed to do,” said state police Technical Sgt. Bernard Kennett, one of New York's top traffic officers noted for his expertise on agricultural and animal-drawn vehicles. “If we as motorists are texting or changing a CD or putting ketchup on a hot dog, all the signs on buggies won't help.”

With the region's Amish population on the rise, traffic incidents involving buggies are increasing, as well, from four in 2011 to eight in 2012, according to Times records.

Already, there have been three accidents this year in St. Lawrence County, resulting in minor injuries to several Amish and the death of one horse.

And none of this accounts for anecdotal evidence of close-calls that leave motorists and Amish alike shaken and frustrated on a regular basis.

Lewis County has seen some of the most serious incidents in the past two years, including a fatal crash in November.

“I think the biggest problem we have down here is driver inattention,” said Lewis County Undersheriff James Monnat.

From September 2011 to December 2012, his county witnessed five buggy incidents. Two resulted in no injuries, while a third left a buggy unscathed but led to minor injuries for two motorists.

In August, police said, a car struck a carriage from behind on Route 12 in Lowville. The horse was killed, while the 17-year-old Amish youth driving the buggy was thrown from it and suffered minor injuries.

The worst was yet to come.

Just before 8 a.m. on Nov. 20, police said Lowville motorist Lacey Northrup, 27, struck a buggy on Route 12 near Vary Road in the town of Harrisburg. Buggy occupant Lydia Hertzler, 30, of 4047 Nefsey Road, Lowville, was injured and her nearly 6-month-old daughter, Rebecca, died of injuries suffered in the crash.

Ms. Northrup, who was not injured, was charged with following too closely and failing to exercise due caution when approaching a horse.

“That was a driver inattention issue,” Mr. Monnat said.

A NUMBERS GAME

Sgt. Kennett, who is assigned to Troop D in Oneida, which includes Jefferson, Lewis, Madison, Oneida, Onondaga and Oswego counties — many of them home to growing Amish communities — said that as those populations rise and buggies are seen in new areas, he expects more accidents as motorists encounter horse-drawn carriages for the first time.

St. Lawrence County Sheriff Kevin M. Wells agreed.

“Amish families are planting roots in areas of the county and adjacent counties where people aren't used to seeing them,” Mr. Wells said.

According to the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Pennsylvania's Elizabethtown College, Lewis County has two Amish districts, or congregations, with an estimated 270 residents, in the county of about 27,000 people. Jefferson County has three districts, representing an estimated 405 Amish in a county of more than 120,000. It is in St. Lawrence where the Amish have settled in much larger numbers, with more than 2,000 residents organized into 15 districts in a county of 112,232.

The Amish in St. Lawrence County have a bit more elbow room, 3,000 square miles compared with Lewis County's 1,290 square miles and Jefferson's 1,857 square miles. They also have lived there significantly longer.

St. Lawrence County has been home to Amish communities for nearly 30 years, and ranked 24th among American counties in Amish population according to a recent study led by Ohio State University.

Its first settlement was by Pennsylvania Swiss Amish in Norfolk in 1974, followed late that year by Ohio Swartzentrubers sect settling in Heuvelton, according to “New York Amish: Life in the Plain Communities of the Empire State,” a book by SUNY Potsdam anthropology professor and noted Amish scholar Karen Johnson-Weiner. Settlements in Hopkinton and Nicholville sprang up in 2003, she added. Lewis County's Amish community dates to 1999, according to Ms. Johnson-Weiner's work, while Jefferson County's first Amish settled in LaFargeville 2005.

There has been a “fantastic take-off of new communities in New York,” said Joseph Donnermeyer, an Ohio State professor who led a recent census of Amish populations across North America. The state counted about 15 settlements in 2000, according to his research, jumping to 48 by 2012, with 15 of those founded since 2010. The state's Amish population increased from about 4,700 in 2001 to almost 15,000 in 2012, placing it fifth in the nation.

Amish families are drawn to upstate New York as they seek relief from increasingly crowded conditions in traditional strongholds like Pennsylvania and Ohio, Mr. Donnermeyer said.

“There's always a town nearby” where the Amish can access essential services such as grocery stores and post offices, Mr. Donnermeyer said of New York. “But it's still very rural.”

Two of his findings stand out: the Amish population is swelling rapidly — doubling roughly every 20 years and poised to top one million by mid-century — and that growing population is increasingly moving around the country in search of places where they can maintain their lifestyle in relative harmony with “English” people, as the Amish have referred to non-Amish communities since colonial times.

ARE LIGHTS, SIGN ENOUGH?

Sgt. Kennett said he had typically seen three to five accidents involving buggies each year across Troop D's coverage area, while Sheriff Wells said there are around four incidents per year in St. Lawrence County.

Still, both lawmen stressed that a dramatic increase in those numbers need not be inevitable, especially if drivers are cognizant not just of other vehicles and the Amish, but of farm equipment, pedestrians, joggers and cyclists.

But to some motorists, the Amish are not doing their part to make the roadways safe.

Nationwide, the debate over use of fluorescent orange “slow-moving vehicle” triangles has often erupted in bitter finger-pointing, and landed some Amish in jail for refusing to adopt the legally-mandated safety devices in some states. More conservative groups within the faith — notably the Swartzentruber community, many of whom live in the Heuvelton area — reject the reflective signs as gaudy symbols that conflict both with their belief in maintaining strict modesty and their staunch insistence that only God can grant them safe passage along the highway.

“We don't like to see that,” Enos M. Hershberger, a DeKalb Swartzentruber member, said of the fluorescent signs. “We don't like to get too modern.”

“We trust in God,” added his wife, Verna.

Such sentiments may not hold water in the court of “English” public opinion, in which some non-Amish feel buggy drivers are not blameless as the region's accident tally grows.

A commenter identified only as “Mame” posted in response to a story about the fatal crash on the Watertown Daily Times' website: “They should have a safe way to strap their babies into a car seat device on the buggy, and have extra lights on the buggy … since the (horse) is more unpredictable and skittish and going much slower than regular traffic.”

“They need reflectors of some kind front and back. The buggies are nearly impossible to see on dark nights. The single lamp on the side is not sufficient at all,” added another commenter, “Deb13618.”

The Hertzler carriage did, in fact, have a reflective orange placard, Mr. Monnat said.

“From 'our' perspective, all Amish people are alike, and they all drive buggies,” Ms. Johnson-Weiner said.

To the contrary, various schisms have divided North American Amish since they first landed in Pennsylvania in the 1700s seeking land and religious freedom. Those who clung steadfastly to traditional ways came to be known as the “Old Order,” but there are differences even among their ranks. That includes different rules about the design, technology and colors permitted on buggies, Ms. Johnson-Weiner said. Some Amish in Lewis and St. Lawrence counties do hang the reflective signs on their buggies, while Swartzentrubers, such as the Hershbergers, do not.

State law does not require buggy owners to carry the signs if other precautions are in place, but history has shown that more traditional Amish aren't afraid to dig in their heels when civil authorities have tried to enforce use of the orange triangles.

“I know that every fall, with the first snow, there will be a spate of letters to the Watertown Daily Times and other papers asking, 'why don't they put on the orange triangles?'” Ms. Johnson-Weiner said. “I can't imagine any circumstance under which they would budge on the orange triangles.”

They have a history of resistance. On Sept. 1, 1983, a state regulation took effect requiring all road vehicles which travel slower than 25 mph to display the reflective triangles. In keeping with their beliefs, conservative Amish in St. Lawrence County did not comply.

At first, nothing seemed to change. Then, one November evening that year, three people were injured when a car rear-ended a buggy on Fish Creek Road in DePeyster. After that, St. Lawrence County sheriff's deputies began ticketing Amish buggy drivers who didn't use the signs. Five Amish men who refused to pay their fines were jailed.

Initial efforts to broker a local compromise proved controversial, with many non-Amish residents calling for the regulations to be strictly enforced. A later pact between the DePeyster Town Council and the Amish in that community would succeed, and paved the way for a statewide change. In May 1984, the state Department of Motor Vehicles commissioner signed an agreement that required animal-drawn vehicles either to have the reflective triangles, or a lighted lantern with a red lens at least four inches in diameter, mounted 42 inches above the ground, plus at least 72 square inches of white or whitish-grey reflective tape.

Ms. Johnson-Weiner said that those who feel the Amish are operating outside the law in New York are “ill-informed.”

“The current state of affairs is the result of negotiations with the secular authorities,” she said. “It's not like they're flouting the law.”

But the compromise established in 1984 does not sit well with all.

“Would I like to see them all with flashing lights and orange triangles? Yes, I would,” Sheriff Wells said. “But as law enforcement, we can only enforce what the law of the land is.”

But some people would like to see those laws changed.

Canton resident Tony Beane wrote in a November 2010 letter to the Times: “With the tiny lantern on the driver's side that appears to throw only a few watts of light and the few pieces of barely reflective stripping on the back of the buggy, I am frankly surprised that there have not been more accidents involving these buggies and motor vehicles.”

Two years later, Mr. Beane wrote to the paper again — after, he said, he was “nearly run off the road by a tractor-trailer swerving to avoid colliding with an Amish buggy on Route 68 between Canton and Ogdensburg.”

“It is beyond belief that the Amish can risk their own lives, the lives of their children, the lives of their animals and the lives of innocent automobile drivers who might get involved in an accident with them due to the drivers' inability to see the black buggies, black horses and black clothing that the Amish wear,” Mr. Beane wrote in October.

RELIGION ... AND PHYSICS

For some Amish, the question is not just one of religion or reflector strips, but physics.

“I don't think lighting is the issue. It's the speed difference,” said DeKalb resident Enos D. Miller, another member of the Swartzentruber community. “We're going 8 miles an hour. To a car doing 50 or 60, it's almost like we're just standing on the road.”

State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, who said she is accustomed to seeing Amish on the roads and driving carefully around their buggies, acknowledged that it can be startling to suddenly come upon a carriage around a hill or bend or along a dark country highway at night, adding that drivers should “always expect buggies or other slow-moving vehicles on rural roads.”

Mrs. Ritchie has created a safety pamphlet offering motorists tips on how to drive safely around buggies, which is available from government offices around St. Lawrence County.

As for the orange triangles, Sgt. Kennett has seen the emergence of a problem involving the signs that has nothing to do with their use on slow-moving vehicles: property owners' planting them at roadside to mark the entrances to their driveways. The practice is illegal, he noted, and indirectly contributes to crashes by desensitizing drivers to the sight of the fluorescent placards at the roadside.

“We all get numb to seeing the signs,” he said.

Sgt. Kennett's educational outreach efforts are aimed not just at motorists, but at farmers and Amish alike. Several years ago he embarked on an experiment with a group of Amish men that proved as educational for them as for himself.

One night, at dusk, he took the Amish men for a car ride so they could experience the sensation of approaching a buggy from behind, in a motor vehicle, at night.

The test buggy was decked out with a triangle, reflective tape and a lantern.

The first thing to catch everyone's eye was the lantern — then the tape and finally, the triangle, Sgt. Kennett said.

That wouldn't surprise Mr. Hershberger.

“You can see it from a long ways,” he said of buggy lanterns, likewise the silvery reflective tape that outlines the back of his buggies.

But, as the police and observant Amish point out, drivers aren't likely to see a buggy at all, day or night, if they aren't properly concentrating on the road.

From the windows of their family's farmhouse kitchen on Old DeKalb Road, Mrs. Hershberger said she often can clearly see passing motorists using electronic devices in the driver's seat.

“Leave the phones off the ears,” she said quietly in her German-accented English.


More Information
Amish facts and stats

- New York has nearly 15,000 Amish residents, up from about 4,700 in 2001. They live in 47 settlements spread across 22 counties.

- Cattaraugus County leads the state, with 16 Amish church districts comprising about 2,100 residents.

- There was an Amish settlement in Croghan, Lewis County, as early as 1833, but over time many of its members moved away or began to identify with the less conservative Mennonite movement. The state's next settlement wasn't founded until 1949 in Cattaraugus County, followed by St. Lawrence County settlements in Norfolk and Heuvelton in 1974.

- In Northern New York today: Lewis County — two church districts, estimated 270 residents

Jefferson County — three districts, estimated 405 residents

St. Lawrence County — 15 districts, estimated 2,025 residents

- There are about 250,000 Amish in the United States and Canada. Given large families and increasing numbers of adult children who remain in the faith, experts predict they will top the 1 million mark by 2050.

- Holmes County, Ohio, is on track to become the nation's first Amish-majority county within 20 years. St. Lawrence County's first Swartzentruber settlers came from Holmes County and surrounding areas in search of good, cheap land and more open space.

SOURCES:

“New York Amish: Life in the Plain Communities of the Empire State” by Karen M. Johnson-Weiner

“The Amish Population: County Estimates and Settlement Patterns” an Ohio State University study by Joseph Donnermeyer, Cory Anderson and Elizabeth Cooksey

“New York Amish settlements: Counties, Settlements and Districts, 2012-2013” by the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, Elizabethtown College


Buggy safety tips

Facts to know:

- Amish buggies typically move only 5 to 8 mph.

- Buggies do not have side- or rear-view mirrors.

- Because of hoof noise and buggy construction, Amish drivers may not hear vehicles approaching from behind.

- Horses often back up a few feet when stopped at traffic lights or stop signs.

- Some buggies may have orange slow-moving vehicle signs, but others may use gray reflective tape and a lantern instead.

DO:

- Be constantly on the lookout for buggies on rural roads.

- Dim your high beams for oncoming buggies, as you would for another motorist.

- Slow down when you see a buggy and maintain a space cushion.

- Pass a buggy only when it is safe and legal to do so.

DON'T:

- Pass a buggy on a hill or blind curve.

- Honk, gun your engine or make other loud noises, which can startle a horse.

SOURCE: State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, in conjunction with the St. Lawrence County Sheriff's Office and the county's Traffic Safety program
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