LEWISTON — In the wake of a hayride accident Saturday that claimed the life of 17-year-old Cassidy Charette of Oakland, state lawmakers were hesitant to say whether Maine’s growing farm entertainment industry should be better regulated when it comes to transporting people on trailers or wagons.
Another 22 passengers suffered injuries, many serious, in Saturday’s accident during the The Gauntlet hayride at Harvest Hill Farms on Route 26 in Mechanic Falls.
But, unfortunately, hayride accidents are not uncommon in the U.S., according to Ron Melancon, the founder of the Virginia-based website dangeroustrailers.org.
Melancon said he was deeply saddened by Charette’s death and angered, too, because for 15 years he’s been urging state and federal lawmakers to do something about trailer safety.
“If a small charter jet crashed and the pilot was killed and this many people were injured, it would be national news and the NTSB would be investigating,” Melancon said. “I see no difference. Why is this kind of accident not investigated to the same rigor as if it were a tour bus or a small charter jet?”
Unlike amusement park or carnival rides,which are inspected and licensed by the state Fire Marshal’s Office, hayrides are unregulated in Maine and remain largely unregulated in the United States.
Since the beginning of September three people, including Charette, have been killed and several seriously injured in hayride accidents in Maine, Missouri, Idaho and Minnesota. Dozens were also injured in unrelated hayride accidents across the United States in 2013, 2012 and 2011.
Melancon tracks accidents involving people being towed on trailers or wagons, including at parades and hayrides. He said that as many as 400 people are injured and as many as 40 are killed each October on hayrides.
Melancon has lobbied National Transportation Safety Board officials and members of Congress to set federal standards, but said he’s had little effect getting politicians to take action.
On Monday, Melancon also started a new Facebook group aimed at getting Maine to pass a law in Charette’s name and aimed at ensuring hayrides are safe in the Pine Tree State.
“I want Maine to be the first state to address this problem and fix it,” Melancon said. “I want her memory to go nationwide and to prevent this type of accident from killing another child or adult in this country.”
He said Maine politicians should not be allowed to ignore the tragic facts surrounding hayride safety, and Charette’s death should prompt action without delay.
He said new federal law requiring backup cameras for all automobiles sold in the United States by 2018 was prompted by 50 deaths a year, and the death toll from malfunctioning wagon and trailer rides is far higher.
But instead of regulating safety in the agritourism business in Maine, lawmakers in 2012 passed legislation actually limiting a farmer’s liability. The law states participants in farm-related events assume there are “inherent risks” and they accept the possibility they may be injured or killed.
The law, similar to one that protects Maine’s ski areas, doesn’t protect a farm operator if they “commit an act or omission that constitutes negligence or reckless disregard for the safety of others ….”
The law also requires that participants in farm-related tourism or entertainment venues be duly warned of the risks they are assuming. That warning must be in the form of a sign placed in a prominent location or farm operators must get a signed consent form from participants.
The warning on the sign must be spelled out in black letters at least 1 inch high and must also include the following information:
“Warning: Under Maine law, there is no liability for injury to a participant in an agritourism activity conducted at this agritourism location if such injury results from the inherent risks of the agritourism activity. Inherent risks of agritourism activities include, among others, risks of injury inherent to land, equipment and animals, as well as the potential for injury if you act in a negligent manner. You are assuming the risk of participating in this agritourism activity.”
The bill creating the law was sponsored by state Rep. Aaron Libby, R-Waterboro, along with eight other Republicans and one Democratic co-sponsor.
The bill, which received broad bipartisan support, was signed into law by Republican Gov. Paul LePage.
On Monday, a message left for Libby was not returned. Also co-sponsoring the legislation was District 17 Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, who represents Mechanic Falls. A call to Mason on Monday was not returned.
Other lawmakers, including those who represent Oakland, Charette’s hometown, said it is too early to say whether Maine should do a better job at regulating hayride safety.
“The community is really grieving right now, as is the Charette family,” state Rep. Henry Beck, D-Waterville, said. “We just have to pull together as a community at this point. As to a discussion around any policy changes, that will have to wait until some time has passed and pending a formal and official investigation.”
Beck said at this point he and others were, “simply sending prayers to the family.”
State Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said he too believed any policy discussion at this point would be premature. He said the focus is to allow Charette’s family and the community time to grieve before delving too far into any policy debates the tragedy may prompt.
But Melancon urged swift action Monday, saying lives are at stake. He also said policymakers will try to say the tragedy is an isolated incident or a “freak accident,” but the facts from around the country show otherwise.
“Here’s where the urgency is,” Melancon said. “Today in your state, in my state, in some other state in the nation the same thing might happen again, and it’s going to happen again. And on average, I’m sorry to say, before the end of this month there will be five more deaths that could be prevented if our governments would act.”