Should Amish be required to install seat belts and other safety features common to motor vehicles?

Aaron Newswanger died when his buggy was struck in Clark County in 2016. A startled horse was to blame in the accident. Photo courtesy of the Clark County Sheriff’s Dept.

That’s the idea behind a new ordinance up for consideration tomorrow in Wood County, Wisconsin:

Horse-drawn vehicles would need windshields, seat belts, child car seats and rear-view mirrors if officials in Wisconsin’s Wood County pass an ordinance that will be considered Tuesday.

Amish and other religious groups that rely on animal-pulled buggies in Wood County also would need to get driver’s licenses and vehicle insurance under the measure.

Officials say it’s about Amish safety:

The proposal is intended to save lives, said County Board of Supervisors member Bill Winch of Vesper, who helped to draft the new rules. Nine people have died in crashes involving horse-drawn buggies and wagons in and around Wood County since 2009, and Winch said it’s an ongoing concern.

“The Amish have been getting killed and obviously nobody liked that,” he said.

The ordinance requires drivers of animal-drawn vehicles to obey the same regulations the rest of the people on the roads are expected to follow, Winch said. If the board approves the measure, operators of horse buggies would have to get a driver’s license from the Wisconsin Division of Motor Vehicles.





However, Amish and PA Dutch language expert Mark Louden sees the proposal differently:

“There is no middle ground with this at all,” Louden said after reading the proposed ordinance. “It’s completely impractical.”

The Amish would consider buying liability insurance or getting driver’s licenses a violation of their beliefs and values, he said.

If the ordinance passes, and Amish residents of Wood County start receiving tickets or getting arrested, they would move to another county or state, Louden said.

“All I can think of is if they pass this, they don’t want the Amish in Wood County,” Louden said.

Tragic road accidents are common among the Amish. Nine related deaths in the area in the past eight years seems quite a lot.

Wood County itself has a relatively small Amish population, with just 2 small settlements as of 2013. This tally of nine deaths takes in surrounding counties’ settlements, of which there are quite a few.

For instance, neighboring Clark County has several sizeable Amish settlements, including a Swartzentruber community. Several of the deaths occurred there.

An Amish buggy travels down a Clark County, WI backroad. Photo by William Garrett

The total likely also includes at least one non-Amish death, when a driver struck an unmanned horse-and-buggy which had gotten loose.

But would a seat belt even help in a buggy accident? Fiberglass or wood-bodied buggies by their nature are flimsy compared to a couple tons of steel traveling at 45+ mph. As awful as it sounds, would being thrown from a buggy be better than being strapped inside something so easily crushed?

The addition of the insurance requirement in particular indicates either that the county doesn’t really understand Amish thinking on insurance, or that as Louden suggests, they really don’t want them as residents any longer.

Wood County Board Chairman Lance Pliml, who said he actually hadn’t seen the revised ordinance, seemed to agree, saying the original concept was to require lighting and some driving education for buggy operators.

He suggested an operator’s license comparable to that mandated for snowmobiles – but that the rest of the ordinance would be “a tough sell.”

On the face of it, the stated purpose of concern for Amish safety is commendable. But the proposed solution doesn’t seem to take into account Amish tradition and beliefs (not to mention the question of whether the Amish were even brought into this discussion).

I also wonder how much of what is driving this bill may have been influenced by general frustration or other non-public issues with the Amish.

“We want to get these people who are driving buggies down the road, or carts, to obey the traffic laws,” said Michael Feirer, chairman of the County Board’s Public Safety Committee.

What do you think?

Update: The measure was defeated on Tuesday, failing to get enough support for a vote. Non-Amish residents came out in strong opposition to the measure, with some calling it “invasive” and “far-fetched”.

From the Wisconsin Rapids-Tribune:

The ordinance was drafted in part by County Board member Bill Winch of Vesper, who said it was proposed to save lives. It would have required animal-drawn vehicles to have windshields, seat belts, child car seats, rear-view mirrors, headlights and taillights, and manure bags attached to horses. It would also have required those who operate the carriages to have a driver’s license and vehicle insurance.

Drivers would have to be at least 16 years old and must have passed a written test showing basic knowledge involving public roads, Winch said in defending the proposal.

Winch made a motion to vote on the ordinance Tuesday, but none of the other 18 members of the Wood County Board seconded his motion, and the issue died.

And:

After the motion failed, County Board Supervisor Brad Kremer of Pittsville said the ordinance was really about getting proper lights on buggies. He said the rest of the regulations could be eliminated.

Winch said he was responding to concerns from constituents about a rash of crashes involving horse-drawn vehicles in and around Wood County, causing nine deaths in less than nine years.

“I didn’t mean to cause all of this controversy,” he said Tuesday. “I do not dislike the Amish.”

Here’s video of the proceedings, with some strong words in support of the Amish: