When worlds collide: Amish buggies, heavy vehicles meet with deadly consequences

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
A motorist maneuvers through two horse-drawn buggies along Copeland Road in California Township. Michigan has one of the fastest-growing Amish populations in the nation.

California Township, Mich. — Amid gently rolling hills in southern Michigan, there was nothing gentle about what happened during a June collision between the old world and new.

A pickup racing along a two-lane blacktop slammed into the rear of an Amish buggy, killing three children.

What was notable about the wreck, besides the horrific toll, was the fact it doesn’t happen more often, police said.

Michigan, which has 15,465 members of the group, has one of the fastest-growing Amish populations in the nation, scholars said.

Eight people died in 135 accidents involving the horse-drawn carriages from 2014 to 2019, according to the Michigan State Police. The figure doesn’t include the June accident.

The reluctance of the Amish to embrace stricter rules for their buggies, from the lights to the wheels, is prompting legislation by the state Republican Senate leader.

The problem isn’t the frequency of the wrecks but the potential severity, authorities said. Since the Amish favor large families, buggies frequently hold five to 10 children.

“It’s not uncommon for there to be whole families,” said Sgt. Seth Reed of the State Police post in Marshall. “There’s always that potential for something catastrophic.”

The chance for calamity could be lessened if the buggies were better lighted and wore reflective orange triangles on the rear, police said.

Amish in other parts of the state use the triangles, but groups along the Michigan-Indiana border, who tend to be more conservative, continue to prohibit them.

In their repudiation of the modern world, they refuse to seek safety from a manmade symbol, they said. They would rather put their trust in God, their lives in His hands.

It’s a clash of cultures with deadly consequences.

“We try to put our trust in the good Lord,” said Lavina Girod, an Amish mother of seven who has been driven off the road by cars.

Town becomes Amish enclave

California Township has no stores, no schools, no stoplights, no post office.

What it does have are farms, lots of farms. Some are Amish and some aren’t. It’s easy to tell the difference.

The Amish farms, which eschew electricity, have no power lines, dry their clothes on clotheslines, till their land with horse-drawn plows.

The rural township seems to be turning into an Amish enclave.

A horse-drawn farm vehicle carrying four people travels along E. Southern Road in California Township.

The exact number of Amish isn’t known, but experts believe they account for a majority of the 1,300 residents. More than half of the township population is under 18, compared with 22% of the state population, according to the Census Bureau.

“They build like crazy,” said Mike Hatt, township clerk. “They begin with a house and shed on a 10-acre parcel, then add eight to 10 more buildings. It looks like a small metropolis.”

But the homes tend to be small. Because, while the local Amish faith runs deep, their bank accounts do not.

Their driveways are dirt and roofs metal. On many homes, the insulation wrap is exposed because the owners can’t afford siding.

Cars vs. buggies

When it comes to wrecks, the physics work against the Amish.

A wooden buggy weighs 500 pounds and moves less than 10 miles per hour. A car is 4,000 pounds of steel hurtling down the road at 60 mph.

The two-lane roads of California Township offer little refuge. There are no shoulders, and some streets are bordered by ravines.

A horse-drawn buggy travels along E. Southern Road in California Township, Michigan, as a motorist begins to maneuver around it.

Buggies can be sitting ducks for motorists who aren’t paying attention, which is the main reason for accidents, police said.

Because of that, Amish drivers said they think about the road behind them as much as the road in front. They try to limit their travel to the daytime and lesser-used back roads.

The group, who will ride the buggies as far as 12 miles, wonder if the motorist approaching from the rear is distracted or has been drinking.

In a wreck eerily similar to the one in June, Judith Martin lost three of her children when her buggy was rear-ended by a pickup in 2017 in central Michigan.

Martin, a Mennonite from Sheridan, was devastated by the loss. As for returning to the road, she makes sure she is well seen.

“The main thing is good lights,” she said. “Good lights and lots of lights.”

The Amish may be leery of car drivers but are reluctant to criticize them. During interviews, they were more likely to feel sorry for motorists who cause accidents because of the emotional and legal consequences they face.

Sects treat buggies differently

Of all the ways the Amish seek to distance themselves from the modern world, the buggy may be the most symbolic. It keeps them close to home, living an unhurried life.

But sects have different views about what the carriages should look like. It depends on their interpretations of the biblical call to live plain lives.

A horse-drawn buggy shares the road with motor vehicles along E. Southern Road in California Township, Michigan.

The conservative California Township group wants the buggy to look as plain as possible. They use a topless, backless carriage that is little more than a wooden frame on wheels.

While other Amish illuminate their buggies with LED lights or battery-operated headlights and taillights, the township sect uses kerosene lanterns on the sides of the carriage with reflectors and white reflective tape on the rear.

But residents and police said the lights are too dim.

“Some of the lanterns are just not bright enough for vehicles to see until they’re right on them,” said Keith Eichler, the Branch County under-sheriff.

The Amish concede the lights can fade as dirt from the gravel roads builds up on them.

They encourage each other to keep the lanterns clean. The last thing they want is for the government to step in and require certain lighting.

In refusing to put the orange, slow-moving signs on their buggies, the township Amish are objecting to more than putting their trust in manmade symbols. They said the garish color of the emblems scar the plain look of the black carriages.

Michigan law requires slow moving vehicles to have the signs, but the Amish won a legal fight against them.

In 1989, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that requiring the sign violated the First Amendment rights of the Amish by abridging their religious freedom.

The orange signs and stronger lights wouldn’t have prevented most of the accidents involving buggies, according to a review of state police statistics.

Of the 135 wrecks in Michigan from 2014 to 2019, the only years the stats are kept in their present form, 83 occurred during the day.

Paved with tragedy

The lights and orange triangles also wouldn't have helped Jake and Caroline Graber.

On June 7, the local Amish couple and their five children were on their way to dinner at the home of Jake's dad.

Amish work a field along Southern Road in  California Township on Thursday, July 17, 2019. Michigan has one of the fastest-growing Amish populations in the nation.

The 10-mile trek, mostly on dirt roads, took them past pastures and cornfields. Halfway there, Caroline wanted to change the usual route and they steered the buggy down a paved road, relatives said.

Tyler Frye, who was driving a pickup and returning from a funeral viewing of a friend, chose the same street.

Around 6 p.m., Frye’s vehicle slammed into the rear of the carriage, sending the Grabers sprawling.

Killed were three Graber children aged 6, 4 and 2. A 1-year-old baby, whom Jake clutched to his chest as he fell, was uninjured.

When police later asked Frye take a sobriety test, he said what was the use.

“I’ve had too many,” he said, according to court records.

He told police he had drank six beers. The test showed he had a blood alcohol level of 0.108, above the legal limit of 0.08.

Frye, 21, of Angola, Indiana, remains in Branch County Jail on $500,000 bond. He is charged with three counts of drunk driving causing death.

The tragedy evoked different emotions from the children’s grandparents.

Caroline’s mom, Lavina Schmucker, said she accepted what happened because it was controlled by God.

“Everything happened like it was supposed to. This is what God wanted,” she told The Detroit News.

A few miles away, Jake’s mom wrestled with the sometimes erratic driving of the English, which is what the Amish call the non-Amish. In a religion that teaches acceptance, it was a rare rebuke.

“Cars will drive too fast. They drive too fast,” Barbara Graber said.

Jake and Caroline have recovered from their injuries as they continue to grieve, family members said. Last week Jake was helped by his dad and brothers as he mended fences in his yard.

The couple declined to discuss the wreck.

Regulating buggies

A horse-drawn buggy travels down Carruthers Road in California Township in south-central Michigan near the Indiana border.  Amish drivers, fearing being rammed by inattentive motorists,
 said they think about the road behind them as much as the road in front.

Township, county and state officials want to regulate the buggies, but the main reason isn’t protection of the Amish. It’s protection of the roads.

The local Amish prefer carriages with steel wheels while the horses have steel horseshoes. All that metal tears up the roads, officials said.

After repaving a street, the township is lucky to get five years of use before having to cover it again, said local officials. The issue comes up at nearly every monthly meeting of the township board of trustees, they said.

The Branch County Road Commission got so tired of fixing one road that, in 2014, it turned the one-mile ribbon of asphalt back into gravel.

“It’s kinda frustrating,” said Basil Bassage, a township trustee. “We see other communities with rubber wheels, flashing lights. You’d think they would want to do it in our community, especially after what just happened (in the June wreck).”

Mike Shirkey, the state Senate majority leader whose district includes California Township, has tried to resolve the matter by meeting with Amish leaders in Branch and Hillsdale counties several times over the last two years.

He asked how they could lessen their damage of the roads but the Amish didn’t propose anything, Shirkey said.

“They gave me nothing,” he said.

Shirkey plans to introduce legislation in September that would regulate the buggies from the wheels to the horseshoes to the lights. He plans to model it after Pennsylvania, which has a heavy Amish population.

But it won’t be an easy sell.

Other state legislators have been trying to pass similar laws since 2012, but the proposed legislation has never made it to the House or Senate floor.

“The Legislature doesn’t want to do anything,” said Joyce Hook, township treasurer. “The state is afraid of the Amish.”

The Amish told The Detroit News the rubber wheels and horseshoes are too slippery on the pavement.

They also worry that, if they begin to accommodate the government, officials will begin asking for more and more changes.

“It seems hard to find a middle ground, I don’t know,” said Jacob Graber, who is Jake’s uncle. “We want to respect your way. We beg that you respect ours.”


(313) 223-4186

Twitter: @francisXdonnell