Traditional travel puts Amish at risk

Times Staff Writer

Most days in Christian County, Amish horse-drawn buggies clip-clop through simple country scenes: cornfields framed with white picket fences, farmland dotted with cattle, homes with smoke billowing from their chimneys and clotheslines fluttering in the wind.

But Sundays involve quite another scene: To get to church, the Amish families pull their traditional black buggies onto Highway 41, where large fluorescent-yellow road signs framed with flashing solar-powered lights guide their way.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 4, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday January 30, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Amish travel: An article in Sunday’s Section A about collisions of horse-drawn buggies and automobiles said an Amish-accommodating Wal-Mart was in Goshen, Ohio. The Wal-Mart is in Goshen, Ind.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 04, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Amish travel: A Jan. 28 article in Section A about collisions of horse-drawn buggies and automobiles said an Amish-accommodating Wal-Mart was in Goshen, Ohio. The Wal-Mart is in Goshen, Ind.

Isaac Stoltzfus, a 28-year-old Amish dairy farmer, calls the signs “eye-catching.” Usually, this would not be a compliment from Stoltzfus, who tends to disapprove of garish displays -- especially when they involve modern technology. Yet he urged transportation officials to install these signs to alert motorists to the presence of horse-drawn buggies on the bustling highway.


Last year, an automobile rear-ended Stoltzfus’ fiberglass buggy, throwing his family out of the carriage. His 2-year-old daughter, Barbara, was killed.

“It’s not a good feeling when a car drives past you at more than 55 miles an hour, especially if you’ve had an accident,” Stoltzfus said. “But it’s something we’ve had to get used to.”

Collisions are increasingly common on this four-lane highway between the Ft. Campbell Army base and Hopkinsville, the county seat. Every day, more than 22,000 sport utility vehicles, light trucks, big rigs, sedans and sports cars whiz along the five-mile stretch, where there have been at least four crashes involving buggies in the last five years.

Throughout the country, transportation officials are introducing a range of measures to prevent automobiles from crashing into buggies on roads near Amish communities. They are widening roads and adding shoulders, designing road-safety manuals for buggy owners, constructing gravel pull-offs and interchanges that allow buggies to ride under and over expressways, and even establishing alternative buggy routes.

Some businesses are getting in on the act, creating special access roads for buggies to avoid automobiles while they travel to their stores. A Wal-Mart in Goshen, Ohio, has created a separate road for buggies, as well as a shed with a hitching rack to tie up horses.

At the same time, many Amish families are refurbishing their buggies with modern technology -- flashing LED taillights, Thermopane windows, windscreen wipers, rearview mirrors, all-wheel brake systems -- to improve buggy safety.


But such modern attitudes toward buggies are not accepted by all members of the Amish community. Of the 220,000 Amish in North America, there are more than 24 subgroups, with widely different opinions on road safety.

In 2002, the Swartzentruber sect, an austere sect of the Old Order Amish, won a legal battle against the Pennsylvania law that all slow-moving vehicles be marked with a reflective red triangle on the back to make them more visible to passing motorists. The group’s leaders successfully argued that the colorful reflectors violated their belief in plain personal belongings. Instead, they outline the back of their buggies with gray reflective tape.

“We can’t really tell the Amish what to do; we can only make recommendations,” said Fritzi Schreffler, safety press officer for the Pennsylvania district that includes Lancaster County, which is home to one of the nation’s largest Amish settlements. There have been 146 crashes between buggies and vehicles in Lancaster County in the last five years, resulting in 205 injuries and seven deaths.

Though some Amish families still use kerosene lanterns and adorn their buggies with only the minimum signs and lights required under state law, others put strobe lights on the top of their carriages and strings of lights along the reins of their horses. “They’re lit up like Christmas trees,” Schreffler said.

The buggy is the key symbol of separation of the Amish from worldly society, keeping them tied to one area and ensuring life at a slower place, said Donald Kraybill, a sociology professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and author of “The Riddle of Amish Culture.”

Yet though the overall size, color and style of the buggy has remained traditional, he said, the many adjustments that have been made to buggies in recent years demonstrate that the Amish have been creative in negotiating a cultural compromise in modern-day America.


“The buggy itself is a symbol of social change in Amish culture,” Kraybill said.

In Christian County, the Amish adopt some modern lighting, decking their buggies with reflective triangles, slow-moving-vehicle emblems and the occasional strobe light. But as their settlement has grown -- the first four Amish families moved to the county from Pennsylvania 16 years ago, and the settlement now consists of 104 families in four counties -- its members have become increasingly concerned about roadside safety.

“In our case, lighting wouldn’t have helped,” said Stoltzfus, who was hit by a car during the daytime by a woman who had marijuana in her car. “I could have had a radio tower on the back of my buggy and it wouldn’t have helped.”

Stoltzfus says he sees cars with license plates from Alaska and New Mexico speeding along the winding back roads. And, he says, he is concerned that so many soldiers from nearby Ft. Campbell seem to use the smaller roads to bypass the congested highways.

Similarly, some members of the local “English” community (the Amish term for non-Amish) complain about the buggy traffic -- about horseshoes and buggy wheels damaging road paving, the smell of horse droppings and the slowness of buggies, which have a maximum speed of about 10 miles an hour.

“Oh, they go so slow!” said Louann Kohl, 58, a homemaker from nearby Crofton who moved to Christian County from Chicago. “They shouldn’t be on the boulevard. When I first saw a buggy, I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh! What is this? They’re going to get run over!’ ”

Others point out that buggies can pose a danger to motorists. According to the Indiana Department of Transportation, in one recent accident in which the buggy driver was at fault, a horse crashed through the windshield of an oncoming car, killing the car’s driver. The buggy driver was not injured.


Yet even with the advances in buggy technology, many Amish ride buggies less frequently now. As many move away from agriculture and set up small businesses, they have taken to hiring “Amish taxis” -- cars driven by the “English” for the Amish -- to take them to work, visit relatives, seek medical care and even vacation in other states.

But the Amish are not likely to forsake the buggy -- especially not on Sundays.

“The buggy is our way of life,” Stoltzfus said.