Excerpts from “Of Buggies and Blinkers”, on The Ohio Buggy Lighting Law

Today’s guest post is by Joe Donnermeyer of the Journal of Plain Anabaptist Communities. It is on a topic that we have covered fairly extensively over the past several years – the buggy lighting issue, particularly as it has unfolded in Ohio.

The state’s 2022 law requiring flashing lights on buggies predictably brought about conflict with members of the most conservative Amish communities. Joe shares excerpts from an upcoming article in JPAC on the topic as he explores the issue in today’s post.

Joe Donnermeyer on the Ohio Buggy Lighting Law

The Amish have a long history of disagreements with governments at the local, state and national levels. A number of these disagreements are discussed in the 1993 edited book by Don Kraybill, titled The Amish and the State (Johns Hopkins University Press). In countries like Canada and the United States, which emphasize separation of church and state, many of the issues, from mandatory education requirements to conscription for military service, are associated with exemptions that can be given by courts for religiously-based objections.

In the state of Ohio, which hosts the largest number of Amish settlements (75), a law was passed and signed by the Governor in 2021 making a flashing light on the backs of buggies mandatory. Nowadays, many conservative Swartzentruber Amish are refusing to conform to the law. In some Ohio counties, but especially Ashland County, Ohio, the sheriffs’ department and the Ohio Highway Patrol have issued tickets, and fines have been assessed. Refusing to pay, there is now the threat of jail time for the Amish.

In the next issue (volume 4, issue 2) of the Journal of Plain Anabaptist Communities (projected publication date is late September/mid-October), an essay by Erik Wesner (Amish America), Joe Donnermeyer (Professor Emeritus, The Ohio State University) and Dee Jepsen (Ohio State University Professor and State Agricultural Safety and Health Leader) will discuss this issue because it is so important to road safety in a state with large traffic volumes, even in its rural areas, and a constantly growing Amish population live side-by-side. As well, there are several horse-and-buggy Mennonite groups now residing in the Buckeye State. Here are some excerpts from the draft, titled “Of buggies and blinkers: An essay on the new Ohio lighting law.”

Sixty years ago, faculty in what was then the Department of Agricultural Engineering at The Ohio State University developed the six-sided orange reflecting triangle for slow-moving vehicles (SMV). Today, the SMV sign is used by nearly every country in the world and is one of the most universally recognized safety warning symbols.

Also, this same department at OSU pioneered the use of reflector tape to improve the visibility of buggies and prevent accidents on public roads. It was a collaborative effort of the Agricultural Engineering faculty, Ohio State University Extension, invited law enforcement at both the state and local levels, and active consultation with various Amish leaders. Specifically, Amish leaders were asked which kinds of reflector tape would be acceptable. From these efforts, educational materials, from flyers to Ohio State University Extension demonstration programs, were developed.

Mock-up of a Slow-Moving-Vehicle triangle on the back of an Amish buggy
SMV sign on a buggy used for extension education programs and a mock-up of a fully-lit buggy. Images courtesy of Dee Jepsen and Joe Donnermeyer

Ohio was not the first state to initiate a mandatory lighting law. Preceding Ohio by a few years was a Wisconsin law to the same effect, and one was passed in 2019 in Maine due to the increased presence of the Amish there. It was deemed sufficient that Swartzentruber buggies need only have a light hanging from the left side of the buggy. One news report quotes a state legislator claiming that he has “…gone to extreme measures to ensure that this bill, should it become law, is supported by the Amish and is a considerable improvement in the area of traffic safety.” This same legislator also observed that because the Amish presence in Maine is relatively new, there are numerous and scary examples of cars and trucks coming up fast and unexpectedly on buggies.

Consulting with the Amish is not always the case. The most famous example in recent times is in the state of Kentucky. Swartzentruber Amish in western Kentucky were issued tickets and some even served time in jail for refusing to use the SMV emblem. Advocates for religious freedom came to the defense of the Amish, but the Kentucky Supreme Court struck down their claims of religious freedom, and the case itself became fodder for national news outlets. This prompted the Kentucky State Legislature to step in and pass a bill that allows the Amish the option of silver reflector tape on the back of buggies if there are religiously-based objections to the SMV emblem.

The current mandatory lighting bill in Ohio states that:

“no person shall operate an animal-drawn vehicle on a street or highway unless it is equipped with the displays, at all times, all of the following: (1) one yellow flashing lamp displaying yellow light that is visible from a distance of not less than one thousand feet and that is mounted in either of the following positions: (a) on the top most portion of the rear of the animal-drawn vehicle; (b) on the top of the animal-drawn vehicle.”

Despite claims that the conservative Swartzentruber Amish in Ohio were consulted, one letter submitted by an Amishman to the Ashland Municipal Court stated:

“I confess that we must show all proper respect to the Government and must honor it according to the teaching of Paul Roman 13 and pay tax, titles, tribute, and show every kind of obedience as long as they don’t require anything against the conscience. When however they commend something contrary to conscience or not according to the teaching of Jesus. The reason for me, not having a battery operated light on my buggy like I know is #1…..#2 my conscience: would not allow me to; #3 my faith: we should have faith in God and trust that he protects us if it is His will. I am afraid that if I start using the flashing light on my buggy it would do me harm spiritually as I could end up having more trust in the flashing light to protect me then in God.”

One of the authors, Joe Donnermeyer, travels frequently to the Ohio Amish Library, which is part of the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center (Behalt) near Berlin, Ohio. Eleven such trips were made in the first six months of 2023. During those research sojourns, the number of buggies traveling on the road were counted according to three groups, namely, buggies with: (1) a flashing light on the back of the buggy; (2) no light on the back of the buggy; and (3) no light on the back of the buggy, but with a large rectangular, off-white, reflector plate about 1 foot long and 6 inches wide mounted on the left side. The large rectangular reflector is an attempt by Swartzentruber Amish for an alternative to the flashing light which they hope will eventually be accepted by state and local officials.

Swartzentruber Amish buggies with reflective rectangular patches on rear
Swartzentruber buggies with white reflector plate in the larger community of Holmes County Images courtesy of Joe Donnermeyer

Altogether, there were 418 observations of buggies traveling along public roads. Of those, 345 (82.54%) buggies had a flashing red light mounted on the top part of the buggy, and only 19 had forgot to turn it on. Fifty-two (12.44%) had neither a light nor the reflector plate, and twenty (4.78%) had the reflector plate. All of the fifty-two buggies, plus the other twenty, were Swartzentruber buggies in style, that is, no windshield or rearview mirrors as well as missing various accoutrements found on most other buggies. Even buggies from another conservative group known as the Dan or Andy Weaver Amish, which resemble Swartzentruber buggies, included flashing lights.

Extra observation trips were also made. One trip was to Ashland County where none of the twelve observed Swartzentruber buggies there had a blinking light. A trip to southwest Ohio in mid-May also was made, where there is a variety of horse-and-buggy plain groups. The first visit was to the Old Order community near West Union, which includes four church districts and about 115 households. On a Sunday drive, both church services were located. All of the buggies parked at those two localities had reflector lights.

A drive on the backroads in this region of Ohio on Monday found every other community but the Swartzentruber group near a small town called Peeples to have the blinking light. This included the small settlement not far from the West Union settlement called Decatur, which is group more conservative than mainstream Old Order Amish. The Decatur community is home to a dozen families. The Stauffer Mennonites are a group who broke off from another Mennonite group known as the Groffdale Mennonites back in Pennsylvania in the 1840s. There is now a Stauffer Mennonite settlement near the small town of Bainbridge, founded in 1989, which is about 25 miles north and east of the West Union Amish settlement. Based on purchasing eggs and a jar of raspberry jelly in order to strike up a conversation with an elderly Stauffer Mennonite couple by a roadside stand, who indicated complete adoption of the flashing light in that community, which today includes about 120 families.

A conservative offshoot of the Stauffer Mennonites is the Noah Hoover Mennonites, who founded a small settlement in 2010 near Winchester, Ohio, about 10 miles north and west from the West Union group. There are now about 75 families there. The Hoover group is distinctive for their strict stand on the non-adoption of technologies that most other Amish and plain Mennonite groups long ago accepted. Pulling into the driveway of a Hoover residence where eggs were advertised (with another dozen purchased), an informative chit-chat with two young men who were bringing a buggy out of a barn began. They gave permission for picture-taking so long as they were not in the picture and obligingly turned on the flashing light. To quote one of the young men: “We won’t use any kind of engine, but a battery-run flashing light is okay.”

Rear view of a parked Noah Hoover Mennonite buggy showing a reflective triangle
Noah Hoover Mennonite buggy, Winchester, Ohio settlement (image courtesy of Joe Donnermeyer)

Based on previous Amish America posts about the new mandatory lighting law, opinions varied greatly but could be organized into four basic types: (1) negative comments about the sponsoring state legislators passing “feel good” laws; (2) negative and often harsh comments about the Amish breaking the law, with some indicating the Amish should move to another country if they won’t obey the law; (3) negative comments about drivers of motor vehicles who speed down rural roads, are under the influence of alcohol, and are distracted by their cell phones; and (4) positive comments expressing hope for a solution so that road safety and the religious objections of the Swartzentruber can both be accommodated.

At this point in an issue that has many more months and maybe even years to play out, there are at least three possible outcomes, but not necessarily the only three. First, Swartzentruber groups will eventually conform because the penalties for citations, fines with accumulated interest, and jail will become too much, that is, too disruptive to church and community life. Second, state and local authorities may eventually give up, that is, back off of strict enforcement of the lighting law, perhaps in part because of unwanted, negative media attention. Third, a compromise may be reached, such as allowing the adoption of the rectangular reflective plate as an alternative to a flashing light and the SMV emblem, so long as it is used all the time when the buggy is on a public road, especially at night.

Whatever solution is eventually reached, it will not end the issue of safety on roads in areas where the Amish and other faith groups who rely on horse-and-buggies travel and share the road with much faster-moving motor vehicles? Likely not. E-bikes, golf carts, and other means of transportation that members of some plain Anabaptist groups now deem acceptable and are adopted for use on public roads present fresh public safety challenges. In a sense, road safety was and will remain a challenge for everyone, as it has since John William Lambert, an early American automobile manufacturer, slammed into a hitching post in one of his experimental horseless carriage models in Ohio City, Ohio (Van Wert County) in 1891.

The Journal of Plain Anabaptist Communities can be accessed at https://plainanabaptistjournal.org. While there, register (upper right hand corner) for the journal, which takes only a few minutes to complete.

Selected posts on the lighting law:

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    1. K. D.

      Buggies and Blinkers

      What a sad topic. When will (all) people finally get it
      through their heads? In order to STOP accidents
      between cars and buggies, BOTH Amish & English
      have to change their lifestyles. Ex., Both groups MUST
      stop drinking and driving. Period. English must learn to
      drive at the posted speed limit and Amish must learn to
      compromise by obeying state/local government with
      regard to lighting/marking their buggies. How does
      trusting the laws of the land (as one commenter wrote)
      offend God? He gave people brains so that they might
      willingly obey the laws and avoid accidents at any cost.
      We all (Amish and English) must fully cooperate or suffer
      the loss of life and property. Just saying . . .

    2. S S

      It's about safety, yours and the general public

      Cars and trucks need to slow down. Be mindful in areas that the Amish live and use horse drawn buggies. Amish need to realize that black buggies can not be seen on dark roads with no street lights at night. I would hate to kill or be killed because I didn’t see the buggy until I was on top of it. I’ve read all those stories and how horrific that is when all it takes is a simple Item that can be seen at night. For your safety and that of the horse and my safety putting a flashing light on the buggy will save many lives or you can make the buggy’s all white so headlights reflect off it at night. If that doesn’t work for you then a law should be passed that you should be home an hour before dusk and remain off the roads at night. There are many things we do not want to do but are compelled to do for our own safety and that of others. We all have to share the road and having a flashing light or large reflecting triangle is not a big deal. It has nothing to do with religion or religious freedoms and everything to do with the safety of you and the surrounding community.

    3. Christina Creede

      Buggy Reflector/Lights

      Hi, I live in Glen NY. When I moved here I had never even heard of Amish folks living here. I had explained to the folks that I could not see them in the dark. Then when I was driving towards them and them coming at me, I could not see the front of the buggy no reflectors no lights… It is really for the safety of them and their children. Me as an Engisher and driver now I dont want to hit people or their children. It is truely for safety of all people!!!! I love the Amish Folks too.

    4. Joe Donnermeyer

      An on-going issue

      For the moment, it seems like the buggy lighting issue is at a pause, but as Fall and Winter come along and the nights start earlier and last longer, there is sure to be future events. Hopefully, solutions will be reached for those Amish who have religious concerns about lights.

    5. john

      bugies and blinkers

      I enjoyed the comments and blinkers on the buggies and it reminds me of bikes that people ride at night with no headlight or taillights on their bike could not see them until the last minute riding down the road. It makes it bad when driving in Amish country where the roads are up and down like a roller coaster and you come to the top of a hill and there is an Amish buggy in front of you even with flashing lights. Sometimes we have to bite the bullet and do as the government wants us to do it took me several seatbelt tickets before I started to wear mine I can side with the Amish in their fight with the government.

    6. buggy lighting

      No one is above the law, it was passed for the safety for us all, it has nothing to do with religious rights, what if everyone claimed that what a mess this country would be in, theres some laws I don’t agree with but until there changed like it or not you have to obey them you can’t make exceptions the law is for everyone like it or not