By Christopher Cudworth
A Reuters story in the Chicago Tribune (12/08/2013) documents the fact that in today’s fast-paced society, more than 60 major crashes per year occur in Ohio and Pennsylvania where there are large populations of Amish. The Reuters article states that a typical accident occurs when a car slams into the back of a buggy because the driver of the motor vehicle misjudges how slow the Amish buggy is actually going.
The Amish are getting slammed from behind by a slew of so-called “reality” TV shows of late. Shows such as Amish Mafia and Breaking Amish with their exploitative approach and possibly fictional scripts are just as dangerous to Amish culture as speeding cars.
One thinks back to the Right of Way scene in the movie Witness in which the character played by Harrison Ford lives with the Amish while in hiding from corrupt Philadelphia police. The Ford character steps into an altercation with locals who are making trouble for Amish men. Ford walks up to the locals and takes out a bully with a punch to the gut and the face. His actions stun both the bullies and the tourist witnessing the scene. It’s not the Amish Way, of course. The Amish take the approach of non-violence and live according to many other customs that do not accord with today’s popular culture.
Amish at large
Some people call the Amish backwards or anachronistic. But that’s not really the point. All religious customs are anachronistic to some extent. It would take a lifetime of analysis to determine the many nuances of Amish culture and where they have accommodated technology, and where it is banned. Frankly, you could do the same with any religion or culture.
When cultures collide there is a tendency to judge one culture as more sophisticated and superior to the other. Certainly many people who drive cars consider Amish buggies the outmoded and therefore inferior mode of transportation. Yet when it is proven that cars contribute mightily to global climate change, they do not appear superior in the critical category of sustainability. So while the world advances it also reaches points of contrast in terms of sustainability and efficiency.
The Amish are not perfect, of course. Some of their farming practices have contributed to the ruination of the Chesapeake By, for example. Runoff from Amish farms travels from Lancaster County watersheds to the Susquehanna River and dumps into the Chesapeake Bay. Cow manure and other pollutants are not good for crabs, oysters and fish. Now Pennsylvania has taken steps to remedy the waterborne pollutants by building up natural filtration around watersheds and streams. The Amish get that. They’ve sacrificed some of their “bank to bank” farming methods in order to get along with the rest of the world.
But in some ways the Amish remain targets of scorn wherever their culture clashes with modern society. People simply aren’t patient enough as drivers to accommodate Amish buggies on the road. Lancaster County is uniquely hilly to boot, with many blind corners and tightly constructed roads where white lines fall off into ditches. There are absolutes, in other words. You’re either on the road or you’re not. Lancaster has taken to creating safety features on its roads including wider shoulders on which buggies can more safely drive. But you can’t change the entire topography of the region. That means crashes are still happening between motorized vehicles and Amish buggies.
It’s all about attitude
People love the scenic aspects of Lancaster County and tourists visit the county specifically to see the Amish with their quaint buggies, well-tended farms and idyllic lifestyles. The Amish are not a reclusive people necessarily, but they do ask for respect and their privacy. It’s a strange little balance. Sharing the roads and sharing the landscape are subtle suppositions. Where do rights for one culture begin and rights for another stop? Sometimes they don’t. That’s where cultures collide.
And it’a all about attitude.
“Cars are faster,” said a man whose sister was gravely injured in a collision with an Amish buggy. “Society is faster; the horse and buggy are slower. Something should be done to curtail the situation.”
The clash between modern motorists and Amish buggies sounds familiar. Anyone who runs or rides their bike on the roads is familiar with complaints about sharing the road. That raises an interesting question. Is the culture of those who run and ride somehow as anachronistic as the Amish? Is riding a bike on a public thoroughfare just as intolerable in modern culture?
In that sense we share an important aspect of culture with the Amish. The cycling and running communities are technically anachronistic in the sense that they engage in modes of transportation that while protected by law are in contradiction to the perceived rights of some who drive motorized vehicles. It’s a culture clash, plain and simple.
Those of us who have been at this running and riding thing for a while usually have a few “war stories” to share about drivers who not only refuse to share the road, but go out of their way to torment and threaten those who run and ride on the roads. In the early days of the running boom there were bottles thrown at runners, dogs let off the leash, water balloons hurled from speeding cars and the inevitable “stealth honk” intended to frighten runners or cyclists along the road. It’s all a classic symptom of the the psychology of “the other” that makes culture clashes so vicious and real.
What the law says
By law slower traffic has the right to be on the same roads as motor vehicles. That means drivers of motorized vehicles must account for both the speed they are driving and the traffic conditions they encounter, which includes Amish buggies but also bicycles and even runners.
It comes down to the ability to separate hazards. That skill is supposedly taught in driver’s education. Perhaps it needs to become a greater priority and brought to the same level of accountability as failure to reduce speed to avoid an accident. In other words, issue some tickets for failure to separate hazards.
If a driver cannot separate hazards they deserve to be penalized, plain and simple. Just the way the Amish like it.