A car zooms past a buggy seen displayed Wednesday in Catherine and John Purington’s yard on Cooper Road in Whitefield. The buggy was damaged July 9 in a collision with a car. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

WHITEFIELD — On the morning of July 9, Catherine Purington looked out the window as she heard a horse and buggy pass by her house, but as it approached she saw there was no driver in the buggy. 

Freddy Zook, a 15-year-old member of Whitefield’s Swartzentruber Amish settlement, had just gotten his new-to-him buggy and was driving it on Cooper Road on his way to work when a car struck it from behind, leaving him with a broken leg. 

Catherine and her husband, John Purington, rushed out to help as soon as they saw the horse go by their house. John ran after the horse, Smokey, and Catherine ran after Freddy. The buggy was destroyed, but the horse was uninjured. 

Since Zook’s crash, two more crashes have occurred in Whitefield, marking three in the past three weeks.

Lincoln County Chief Deputy Rand Maker thinks there “have been more than what we normally experience.”

On July 31, Blaine Plummer, 88, of Monmouth, was attempting to shield his eyes from the sun when he drove into a buggy on Route 17 going from Jefferson to Whitefield. The buggy held three people, but no one in the crash was injured. 

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And on Thursday, Thomas Malone, 80, was attempting to pass a buggy on East River Road in Whitefield and failed to do so when his lane of passage became smaller than intended. The vehicle he was driving hit the back right tire of the buggy, but neither he, the driver of the buggy nor the horse were injured.

The incident with Zook gained notice on Facebook when Purington’s daughter, Amy Peaslee, posted a message to alert the town about the incident and cautioned people driving through to be aware of the buggies. 

Purington has become close with the Amish settlement, and said they are “frustrated” and “petrified they are going to get killed” by the speeders. She is particularly close with Zook’s family and frequently visits them down the street from her. 

When residents of Pittston heard of the recent crashes through the Facebook post, they urged the Select Board to add the issue to its Aug. 4 meeting agenda.

According to Pittston Selectman Kerri Malinowski, the town decided to add signage alerting drivers of the areas they might encounter a buggy – on Route 174 and on Kelley Road. She said she doesn’t know exactly when the signs will go up, but it will be “soon.” 

Whitefield, where most of the crashes have happened, has a number of signs already to alert drivers of the buggies. Town Manager Yolanda Violette said there are signs on state routes 17, 126, 194 and 218, among others. In addition, on the “Welcome to Whitefield” signs around town, “We share the road” is written under the welcome.

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The buggy Zook was in was completely totaled, Purington said, and he will no longer be able to drive it. Though her daughter’s Facebook post was meant to spread awareness and urge people to share the road with buggies, two more crashes have taken place since then.

And more crashes are exactly what Purington is afraid of.

A horse and buggy sign is posted on Cooper Road in Whitefield. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

CRASHES IN WHITEFIELD  

In the time she has lived in Whitefield alongside the Amish settlers, who arrived in 2017, Purington said she has seen at least a dozen crashes in front of her residence or not far from it. There have been multiple times where she and her husband were woken at night, or early in the morning by the crashes. 

“We have them here constantly,” Purington said. “We have had two rollovers, one caught on fire, one went through our rock wall, one rolled over going up the hill.” 

The Amish who live in Whitefield are from the Swartzentruber denomination and are one of the most conservative denominations and hold the “strictest” set of values, according to Cory Anderson, a sociologist and demographer post-doctoral fellow at Penn State.  

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He said the Swartzentruber Amish have been reluctant to add reflective slow-moving triangles, or reflective tape to the back of their buggies to warn drivers of their presence in the dark. Their buggies have a simpler design without a glass windshield or sliding doors; they instead have a curtain for a door and lanterns on the side of the buggy for light. 

Anderson said reluctance to change their buggies by adding reflective materials comes down to their church and values. Too much change and adaptation aren’t necessarily ideal within their settlement, he said. Having a mindset of changing may lead to more change they might not necessarily agree with, Anderson said, or no clear end in sight regarding change. 

“You could say its derived from religious culture and to get those to put markings on the buggy there is the question of, ‘Well, who is going to do it first?’” he said, adding that the Swartzentruber Amish have put reflective tape on the back of the buggy, but not the slow-moving triangle sign. 

But the reflective adaptations for the Amish buggies are mainly for vehicles to avoid rear-end collisions with the buggy. Anderson said rear-ending buggies comes down to one fact which is the speed difference between the two vehicles. 

The speed limit on Cooper Road, where Purington has seen many crashes, is 40 mph. 

She believes people go up to 60 mph on the road. Purington said she knows that because she has had her husband drive the speed limit past her house so she can see what it looks like, and noted her engineering background helps gives her accuracy in estimating the speeds.

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At the end of the street, Purington said, the speed limit is 25 mph.

In addition to Amish buggies, Cooper Road also sees a lot of tractor and pedestrian traffic, she said, adding that speeding there has been a “bad problem for years.”

A member of the Amish community travels Tuesday along Route 2 in Norridgewock. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Maine law states a person driving a horse-drawn buggy or a horse has the right of way, and motorists should use a respectable speed to pass the buggy and horse.

Anderson said drivers aren’t used to any type of object obstructing their view when driving at a high speed — let alone a buggy —if they are not used to the area. He said the correct way to pass a buggy is to get as far as possible away widthwise and to keep eyes on the road, especially on curved roads. 

“Our road system is consistent symbolically, it’s designed not to catch the driver off-guard,” Anderson said. “Like with construction, there are signs after signs until you approach it, with other safety measures. When motorists are trained not to expect surprise, they can tumble into the construction site if there aren’t a lot of warnings.” 

He said when the Amish community experiences a crash like Zook’s, they are “shaken.” 

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“If someone is in an accident, it fazes them, it shakes them up,” Anderson said. “Some of them might spend a little while in the hospital … it shakes them up. They might not be able to do labor-intensive work. When a crash happens, everyone (in the Amish settlement) knows about it. It’s widely discussed.” 

In his research, Anderson found that buggy crashes account for the “second highest reason for Amish hospital admissions” and 43% of buggies sustain extensive damage or were destroyed and 10% of buggy crashes with motor vehicles involved a fatality. 

Anderson said the Amish can’t “live a life where they are on edge with every vehicle.” 

A horse and buggy sign is posted on Cooper Road in Whitefield. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

PREVENTIVE MEASURES  

Across the state of Maine, Cory Anderson estimates there are around 1,000 members of the Amish community, mainly in the Augusta and Waterville areas and as far north as Aroostook County. 

He would like to see Maine teach in its driver’s education classes how to encounter objects on the road such as buggies, but mostly because he estimates more Amish settlements will travel and stay in Maine in the coming years. 

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“There are farms to be taken over, inexpensive land, they like low land taxes and among the Swartzentruber Amish when women are done having children, they usually average around eight to nine kids,” Anderson said, adding they will generally stay Amish, too.  

Whitefield has also given the Amish settlers in town a warm welcome, which Anderson said helps the settlement stay a while. He said it’s not uncommon for the Amish to move after a couple of years if they do not like where they are living. 

“Buggy signs, to the Amish, are a warm sign that people there welcome them,” he said. 

Purington thinks the answer to the problem is having police pull over more people who they see speeding on the road or to install cameras. She told police officers in the past to sit in her driveway to watch cars speed by, but on the day an officer did so he told her he did not see the problem. 

“The only thing that’s going to work is a big police presence for a while,” Purington said. “Pulling them over, even if they are not speeding a lot, but just going over the limit. Hand them tickets. Up where it’s near 25 miles per hour, people probably go through at 50 miles per hour. It’s not uncommon.” 

But the main way to keep the Amish buggies safe is to be aware of the surroundings and pay attention to the signage.

Whitefield Select Board member Carlene Donahue said most of the crashes happen during the day and urged people driving through the town to slow down and pay attention to the road, especially roads with a curve where their view may become obstructed.

“Maine is a beautiful place to be slowing down,” said Donahue. “Driving through the country and enjoying the sights on the way to wherever is always a good idea.”

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