Gov. Scott Walker recently signed into law Assembly Bill 475, legislation that updates light requirements on slow-moving, animal-drawn vehicles. Authored by state Sen. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon, and Rep. John Spiros, R-Marshfield, the bill aims to improve road safety for all drivers.
“Every year we are seeing fatalities where somebody comes up on a buggy and an accident occurs. The fatalities have such a devastating effect not only on the Amish family, but on the people that are involved in the accident. Our goal in this is to create some type of safety measure that will help these buggies be seen, especially in the evening and nighttime hours or when there is fog out,” Petrowski said.
Rep. Bob Kulp, R-Stratford, aided Spiros with drafting the legislation and met with several local Amish communities to discuss the goals of the bill. The bill comes after legislators heard from people about the need for new requirements on these vehicles.
“I think anybody that has driven in our rural parts of the state with a lot of Amish or old-order Mennonite communities and their horse-drawn vehicles has come upon them in inclement weather or at night and some of them are not lighted well,” Kulp said. “It is really a safety concern from the motor vehicle driving population being able to see these buggies.”
Meeting with local Amish communities, Kulp said he started a conversation with them on why better visibility of their buggies is necessary, while still being sensitive to the culture.
“I bring a unique perspective to the issue because old-order Mennonite and Amish are actually my heritage; my mom was Amish and my dad was old-order Mennonite. My first language was Pennsylvania Dutch so I could actually go to some of the communities and have conversations with them, although briefly, in their native tongue,” he said.
Kulp said the response to the new law has been mixed, with some people feeling it did not go far enough from a visibility and enforcement perspective.
The law requires slow-moving, animal-drawn vehicles to have one white headlight and two red rear lights, with the new requirement of an additional rear flashing yellow or amber strobe light. The light needs to be visible from 500 feet away.
“In the fog or at night, you can come upon these buggies so fast that you don’t see them ahead of time,” Petrowski said. “This yellow or amber strobe that we would like to see mounted on the buggies I think really will allow people to see them from a long distance. I think it will save lives and will make our roadways much safer in rural areas.”
“They have six months to comply to the law and then it is basically a warning type system as opposed to citation,” Kulp said.
Kulp said this seemed to be the correct approach rather than a more punitive approach right away. He is hopeful that with the dialogue started with the communities before the law was passed, the communities affected will be more accepting of the requirements.
“If we see that (warnings) don’t work, we will likely have to do some things where you have citations beyond warnings, but I think this is the right place to start,” he said. “I think there are only about a half-dozen groups of the most restricted congregations that will end up having a problem with this and they may end up bucking it to the point where they could potentially take it to the Supreme Court, which is what they did with slow-moving-vehicle signs a couple of decades ago.”
Although motor vehicle and animal-drawn vehicle collisions are relatively rare, they are usually very serious and Kulp said being proactive with the issue is important.
“You never want to say there is not a problem when you can’t know how many people were very close to an incident,” he said. “It also goes beyond that to the fright factor.”
Kulp said not only is it people’s reactions to avoid the collision, but the reaction to the population that made being proactive about the issue important. He said he is hopeful that the affected communities will be accepting of the legislation and that the dialogue started between people will help them to work together better in this regard.
“When you pop over a hill and it is dark and foggy and suddenly you see this vehicle, what goes through the mind of the person driving the motor vehicle is ‘those crazy Amish people, why can’t they figure this out.’ It turns into a class or culture issue that really doesn’t need to be there and that was really one of my appeals to the Amish community,” he said. “I told them I get why they want to be fading into the woodwork; it is part of their nature. But this is about being responsible and putting yourself into the shoes of the English — to use their vernacular — as to what goes through their minds when they come across a buggy that isn’t lit up well.
“I tried to get the communities to see that this is an important way that they can live in peace with their neighbors and their friends around them. I think that is something that they have not always thought about so it was an opportunity for me to point this out to them — not to be flashy, but to be responsible citizens in a community that has a lot of different people and vehicles.”