Vehicle crashes with horse and buggies prompt search for solutions

Jeff Smith
The Leader

In mid-June, a vehicle traveling at approximately 50 mph rear-ended a horse and buggy on state Route 364 in Yates County. The buggy was traveling at about 7 to 10 mph.

The collision resulted in the death of a 67-year-old woman in the buggy. Her husband, the driver of the horse and buggy, was injured but survived.  

In another incident on July 21, two people in a horse and buggy were rear-ended by a vehicle on State Route 14A, near North Main Street in Penn Yan, New York. The buggy's passengers were ejected in the crash, and later airlifted to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester.

The accident scene at the intersection of Rte. 14A and North Main St. in Penn Yan.

Both victims are improving but face months of recovery. The horse survived after being secured by a nearby farmer. The vehicle's driver, who was charged with failing to exercise due caution in approaching a horse and following too closely, was not injured. 

More:Car vs. horse & buggy accident victims improving

Vehicle versus horse and buggy collisions are typically caused by distracted driving, poor illumination on buggies, and vehicles traveling at too-high speeds, according to Yates County Sheriff Ron Spike. Buggies are typically operated by the Mennonites and Amish, many of whom call New York's rural counties home.

“They are frustrated as well with the collisions,” Spike said of the nearly 3,000 Mennonites in Yates County. “They are very concerned about getting clobbered and the fatalities that have taken place. It’s concerning."

Solutions that could help limit these collisions, Spike said, include more illumination on the horse and buggies, better statistics to analyze the incidents and less distracted drivers. 

What causes vehicle and buggy collisions?

A frequent cause of these collisions is a fast-traveling vehicle's driver who doesn’t notice a much slower horse and buggy until it’s too late, according to Spike. 

“It takes only about five seconds for a motor vehicle going 50 miles per hour to travel 400 feet and you're on them. So that’s an issue,” Spike said. “Any distraction by the motor vehicle operator in taking your eyes off the roadway, such a collision can happen very quickly. It's just sad to see these things.” 

Steuben County Sheriff Jim Allard agreed. 

“The rate of closure is the issue,” Allard said. “Someone is in a vehicle going 55 to 60 miles per hour and a horse and buggy is going 7 to 10 miles per hour, up a hill or around a corner, drivers underestimate the rate of closure and that is typically what causes the collisions.” 

Spike said 85% of the collisions anywhere in the Finger Lakes with slow-moving vehicles happen in the daytime.  

“We don’t have too many night incidents at all. A lot are caused by speed too fast for conditions or following too close,” Spike said. “The biggest one of late has been distracted driving by adjusting the radio or having eyes off the road for another reason.”

To better deal with what often causes a vehicle-horse buggy accident, Spike has teamed up with Mennonite families to add a white amber flashing strobe light to the top of the buggy’s roof. It's an effort intended to more quickly get a vehicle driver's attention, allowing them time to hit the brakes before an accident occurs. 

"We certainly think if you start to come up behind a buggy that has this strobe light flashing, (a driver) will see it a lot quicker. The flashing light really gets their attention,” Spike said. 

A Mennonite's family's horse and buggy recently traveling on state Route 14A near Penn Yan.

Judson Reid, a specialist with Corning Cooperative Extension who has worked with the Old Order Mennonites culture for 20 years and is a published author on the subject, agrees the flashing light will help motor vehicle drivers more easily see a horse and buggy in front of them. 

Allard said motorists must slow down when they see a horse and buggy and remember to dim their lights as they pass—if the lights are not dimmed it blinds the operator of the buggy. 

Spike said another big issue that can often cause accidents is that the buggies are painted black due to a religious belief. 

“That black color is really an issue with some people's eye's ability to adjust to that color,” Spike said. 

Accurate statistics could help in understanding collisions

Spike said he has long asked the state Department of Motor Vehicles, the New York State Police and other agencies to clarify exactly when a slow-moving vehicle crash includes a horse and buggy, as opposed to farm tractors, agricultural equipment and other slow-moving vehicles. 

“Currently, small moving vehicles, you don’t know whether we are talking about a horse and buggy on a traffic report, a farm tractor or a piece of agricultural equipment,” Spike said. “They all have a triangle on them. We just need to have better statistics on breaking these things down to get a better handle on it.” 

Spike said that change would allow everyone to know exactly what type of slow-moving crash occurred. 

“What is the classification? Was it a horse and buggy or was it a farm tractor or was it a combine?” Spike said. “It’s really challenging. It's really frustrating. All it would take is a box on a traffic report. Every week in the country there is one or two collisions with a horse and buggy. It’s amazing.” 

What rules must horse and buggy operators follow?

The general rule is the operator of a horse and buggy does not need a license and there is no minimum age to operate them.  

“The rule is that any vehicle that is drawn by an animal must have a small moving emblem and reflectors on the back of the buggy,” Spike said. “A buggy is considered a vehicle, not a motor vehicle, but a vehicle under the New York State Vehicle and Traffic Laws." 

Operators have to abide by signal laws and stop signs, he said.

“I’d like to remind people that a horse and buggy is a legal action on the road. It doesn’t have inferior rights compared to motorized vehicle,” Reid said. “They're just different uses of the same public space and we can apply to pedestrians and bicycles as well. There is not a difference just because a motorized vehicle goes faster and weighs more.” 

The Horning's buggy being removed from the scene.

Spike said that is all true but a lot of motorized vehicle drivers don’t have the needed patience, leading to many of the vehicle-horse and buggy incidents. 

“They’re in a hurry to get where they want to go. They want to travel 55 miles per hour and other people like horse and buggies are driving a lot slower and they have no protection,” Spike said. “It’s nothing like a motor vehicle, which has different safety features.” 

Law enforcement and the Mennonite community

Spike said agencies get along very well with the Mennonites in Yates County.

"They are excellent with adhering to the traffic regulations in the emblem and the reflectors," Spike said. "I’d say that 95% of our Mennonites have the red lights on the back and flash both top and bottom and signal lights and all that type of things. So, we are very pleased with how they have applied with the law on lighting and reflectors and that type of thing.” 

At what point does authority run up against a group's autonomy to express their faith with their mode of transportation? For Reid, it's an interesting question.

"I would like to think that New York and the local authorities, both law enforcement and transportation authorities, have struck a balance of respecting those religious groups' freedom to express themselves," Reid said.

John Christensen of The Chronicle-Express contributed to this story.