A horse and buggy warning sign in Buckingham County. (Cody Davis)
In December of 2019, the Yoder family was traveling east on Route 60 in Buckingham County when George M. Lee crashed his Chevrolet Silverado into their horse and buggy, killing mother Sylvia Yoder, throwing her husband from the vehicle and sending their four children ranging in age from 2 to 10 years old to the hospital with serious injuries. The following year, Joseph S. Swarey of Pittsylvania County died at just 19 after a driver collided with his carriage. And last October, a driver in a Toyota Tundra rear-ended the Esh family in Cumberland County, killing both parents and gravely injuring their eight children.
Although the count of such crashes involving a horse and buggy has barely budged over the last seven years for which the Department of Motor Vehicles provided data, the number of injuries and deaths has been increasing. Since 2016, Virginia has witnessed 24 collisions involving a horse and carriage, resulting in four fatalities and at least 65 injuries. Three-quarters of those deaths and two-thirds of those injuries have occurred in just the last two years. So why doesn’t the commonwealth have a plan to curb the carnage?
The state strategy
From the proliferation of massive SUVs and trucks to the scourge of distracted driving, many of the factors behind the rise of deadly horse and buggy crashes mirror those fueling Virginia’s skyrocketing pedestrian death rate.
There is one key demographic difference: the involvement of the Amish. Disastrous car-on-carriage collisions are partly increasing due to an influx of Amish families to the commonwealth.
Although Virginia’s Mennonite population has remained relatively stable at around 9,000 over the last few decades, the number of Amish in the commonwealth has grown nearly 22-fold over that same time period, from roughly 75 to 1,620, according to data from the Young Center at Elizabethtown College. Those with direct connections to this somewhat elusive community believe the numbers may be even higher. Local officials have said the main driver of this Amish migration may be the lower cost of farmland here compared to Pennsylvania and Ohio, which boast nearly half of the country’s Amish population.
As Mennonite and Amish community members make up the majority of Virginia’s horse and buggy operators, the Virginia Department of Transportation has been focusing safety efforts on those localities with the largest populations in the state, including the areas around Harrisonburg, Farmville, and the Northern Neck.
According to Steve Snell, a VDOT engineer in Farmville, the state strategy for reducing crashes consists of three E’s: engineering, education, and enforcement. VDOT takes the lead on engineering by working with counties to identify ideal locations for yellow diamond warning signs. The DMV, which is responsible for education, added a section on horse and buggy signage to the official driver’s manual a few years ago. And on the enforcement front, state police focus their efforts on reducing speeding and distracted driving — the top two behavioral drivers of deadly crashes.
Currently, the commonwealth has 78 horse and buggy warning signs scattered across eight counties. Where Amish populations are relatively recent arrivals, such as in the Northern Neck, VDOT has been installing warning signs along all major entrances to the locality in order “to set expectations within that county that these vehicles are underway,” according to Ritchie Robbins, a VDOT manager who works with traffic control devices.
If a county requests additional horse and buggy signage at a particularly problematic intersection such as where Routes 60 and 15 meet in Buckingham County, VDOT will accommodate the request if the spot’s crash history or road curvature warrant it. But Robbins said that “one of the worst things we could do is to over-sign and for the warning signs to become meaningless.”
Although some community members in counties where deadly crashes have occurred have called for dedicated horse and buggy lanes similar to those found in parts of Pennsylvania, so far government officials have deemed such a solution too expensive
“Everytime there is a crash the state police and VDOT investigate to make sure the road did not cause it because of geometry and road conditions,” Snell explained. “Some people feel that at times we don’t look into these, but we look into every crash.”
Buckingham the bold
In the wake of the 2019 crash that killed Sylvia Yoder, Buckingham County created a municipal Amish Safety Committee. That body initially sat stagnant for months until another wave of horse and buggy crashes prompted local leaders to appoint Cody Davis, chief of the county’s department of emergency services, as chair. Today Davis serves alongside the Amish community’s bishop, representatives from VDOT, a state police sergeant, the county administrator, the local commonwealth’s attorney, the sheriff, two county supervisors and a couple community members. The audience for Safety Committee meetings is always majority Amish.
Progress has come in fits and starts, as the pandemic put off all in-person meetings and the Amish are notoriously averse to Zoom or any other form of virtual communication. So far the Safety Committee has succeeded in installing new signage along dangerous stretches of road in Buckingham, recruiting the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation as an educational partner and arriving at an agreement that the Amish will internally ensure that all their community members have one flashing amber strobe light on the rear of their buggies.
Davis, however, feels the Safety Committee can only be effective if it focuses on educating drivers to slow down and be more alert.
“The majority of these accidents happen on straightaways in the daytime,” he said. “These crashes are the fault of distracted drivers not alert enough to respond to something coming up on you quicker than a normal car. When you’re in Buckingham County, you need to know that a vehicle you’d normally come up on in 10 seconds, you’ll be on top of in one second, because horse and buggies travel at one-tenth the speed of a car.”
Where Buckingham’s Amish Safety Committee would like to see more state support is in education. “The channels through which the state can do public education are much broader than what we can do as one county,” Davis said. “If they could do a statewide campaign to complement or expand on our work, that would be valuable.”
Car-on-carriage collisions also throw curveballs to first responders that additional training in counties with large Mennonite and Amish populations could address. Firefighters and emergency medical technicians often respond to car crashes involving a single driver. When a buggy is involved, there are almost always numerous children injured — as many as eight in the case of the Esh family. Many rural first responders aren’t trained to provide quality pediatric care to multiple people simultaneously, let alone deal with hurt horses that may need to be put down.
The recent increase in horse and buggy crashes has piqued the interest of state agencies ranging from VDOT and the DMV to the state police and sparked calls for a statewide plan to combat the rise of deadly car-on-carriage collisions.
But although Davis said he would welcome such a plan from the commonwealth, he doesn’t see it as a panacea.
“This isn’t an issue the government can step in and remedy altogether even if we had all the funding in the world,” he said. “Even in Pennsylvania where they have extra horse and buggy lanes, it’s not something that is completely preventable, but it is something that we can drastically decrease in frequency.”
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