Plain Peril: Reducing Buggy Accidents in Amish Country
by John Lines
Eric H. Bradburn, DO, director of the LG Health Physicians’ Trauma Program, steps into an Amish buggy before touring Lancaster County’s rural roads to understand firsthand the dangers buggy riders can encounter.
For the more than eight million tourists who visit Lancaster County each year, a drive through the scenic countryside often involves the need to pass a horse-drawn Amish buggy.
Unfortunately, for many visitors, being unfamiliar with Lancaster’s rural roads or carelessness while approaching and passing a slow-moving buggy increase the odds of a serious accident.
More than 630 accidents involving vehicles and horse-drawn buggies occurred in Pennsylvania over the last decade, according to state data. Most of those accidents occurred in Lancaster County, home to nearly 37,000 Amish residents.
Since 2015, Lancaster General Hospital’s trauma center has treated nearly 90 buggy accident victims, with many others treated for less-serious injuries in the hospital’s emergency department.
One recent accident typified the issue: A family of six – including an infant – required emergency care at LGH in July after their buggy was rear-ended by a pickup truck in rural eastern Lancaster County. The truck driver – suddenly blinded by the setting sun – plowed through the lightweight fiberglass coach.
To reduce such devastating incidents, LG Health and local partners now provide basic tips for tourists when approaching buggies and large farm equipment on Lancaster County roads. “Often, drivers don’t know what to do when they encounter a buggy,” said Michael Reihart, DO, FACEP. “I’ve lived here most of my life, and no one taught me how to safely drive around buggies.”
Earlier this year, Reihart and his colleague Eric H. Bradburn, DO, director of the LG Health Physicians’ Trauma Program, went for a ride-along in a buggy down some of the County’s popular smaller roads to understand firsthand the dangers buggy riders can encounter. Rural roads are often narrow, giving drivers less room to maneuver or see open ditches around sharp turns, Bradburn said.
Local and out-of-state drivers are often unaware of how and when it is safe to pass a buggy, how much space to allow when passing, or how to avoid a collision in the dark or otherwise dangerous conditions.
“It was frightening to see how cars drove around us,” Bradburn said. “We were passed by 18-wheelers; with distracted drivers on cell phones and even a few blowing their horns.”
Lancaster County buggies are almost always black or gray, making them difficult to see at night. Some Mennonite and Amish groups equip their buggies with battery-operated lights and blinkers, as well as orange triangular signs legally required for slow-moving vehicles. More conservative sects, however, are stricter about abiding by religious tenets about modesty and are less willing to add safety features that might draw attention.
Not surprisingly, buggies also often lack seatbelts, air bags and many of the other safety features that can reduce injuries. LG Health Trauma Program manager Jo Ann Miller, MSN, says that as a result, most patients injured in buggy accidents present with blunt force trauma to the head or arm, or leg fractures. Twenty-three people have died in Pennsylvania in crashes involving horse and buggy vehicles from 2007 to 2016, according to PennDOT data.
Reihart has also worked with members of the Pennsylvania Amish Safety Committee, the state Department of Transportation, and other LG Health physicians to publish “Drive Safely in Amish Country,” a two-page pamphlet with practical advice for motorists. The pamphlet, a part of the trauma program’s ongoing community education and outreach efforts, is now available at popular tourist destinations. It’s found at many Amish-run businesses throughout Lancaster County, including smorgasbords and farms that are open to visitors.
The American Trauma Society, through funding from the John Templeton Foundation, provided essential funding for the safe-driving pamphlet, which advises:
- Slow down when approaching buggies, passing only when safe and leaving at least 20 feet in front of the horse before returning to the travel lane.
- Leave more space between a car and buggy than you would between cars, enabling more time to react.
- Refrain from blowing horns, which can spook even experienced horses.
- Remain several feet behind a buggy when stopped because they tend to roll back.
- Recognize that buggies may be lighted, but horses usually are not. At night, that can create potential for too-short passing zones or collisions when turning.
“Accidents between buggies and cars are devastating for both buggy users and those driving cars or trucks. This pamphlet is a small but effective way to increasing protection for buggy passengers, and make our roads safer for everyone,” Reihart said. “Basic understanding of how to share the road can go a long way to benefit all drivers.”