When Cars and Buggies Collide

There were two serious buggy accidents here recently. Both were the victims of hit-and-run drivers, and there were fatalities. The media, of course, covered the accidents. A couple weeks later a Letter to the Editor was sent to the local newspaper. In it, the writer said he was blown away by the "plain community" thing and felt the solution was for the Amish to drive cars "like everyone else around the world." It seemed like a logical and easy solution to him, especially since the Amish don’t pay road taxes.

Apparently, the fact that driving a horse and buggy is a matter of religious belief had escaped the writer, as well as the fact that the Amish pay many taxes from which they receive no benefit, school taxes being a good example.

Visitors are often confused by the fact that Amish may ride in cars, buses, or trains for longer trips or emergencies, even though they may not own or drive cars themselves. This seems hypocritical, or at least contradictory. The Amish view the car as something that will break down their close knit family and community. Scholars have noted how this has indeed become the case in America. Cars make us extremely mobile. Many of us do not know our next door neighbors very well because we get up in the morning and head our separate ways to work, school, or church. Our best friends are often people who live far away from us, simply because the car has given us the ability to travel so easily.

I sometimes tell students that if I come home to find my house has burned down, it is highly unlikely that my neighbors will be there the next day to build me a new one. Perhaps that is why benefit sales and Amish barn raisings fascinate us so much. But it is simply neighbors helping neighbors. Of course, you can’t have a sense of neighborhood or community if you don’t know the people who live around you.

An Amishman once wrote, "We do not feel cars are wrong in themselves. It is the misuse of them that is wrong. How many sixteen-year-olds do you know who own a car? Is it not usually that the car owns them?"

Other Amish writers have noted that once we have a car, instead of saving time by being able to get things done quickly, we find more things to do and places to go, simply because it is now so easy to do so.

Amish author Elmo Stoll tried to explain this paradox as follows….

"When buggies and automobiles tangle, the buggy usually comes out the loser. We believe this is as it should be for a people who are nonresistant, since we would rather be the victim than the aggressor. I suppose there are fewer accidents and far fewer fatalities among the plain people (on a per capita basis) than in the society around us."

During the media coverage of the buggy accidents here in Lancaster, the local TV station called for my comments. Some of the questions I was asked were, "How come an Amish family was out late at night?" and "Why couldn’t they wear seat belts and have cars seats?" I was also asked what I thought the reaction of the Amish community was. I answered that it was probably the same reaction any community has when some of its members die tragically in an accident.

We so often look at people who are different from us from our perspective. To paraphrase an Oscar Hammerstein II song, "Why can’t they be like we are, perfect in every way?" Maybe some Amishman will write a letter telling us how to eliminate air pollution, road rage, and thousands of deaths and injuries a year. The simple answer is for us to give up our cars. But I doubt I’ll be reading a Letter to the Editor like that any time soon.


Amish Country News Publisher's Message by Brad Igou (2002)


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