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Only protection Amish have is alertness of passing motorists

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CANTON — The telltale twitch of a horse’s ears may be your only warning before a truck roars by from the rear and shakes the canvas-covered buggy you’re riding in on the shoulder of the highway.

With no rearview mirrors or windows, and the cacophony of hooves hitting the pavement and rattle of the mostly wooden cart masking sounds that would alert you of traffic coming from behind, the ride Amish take every day can be frightening to someone more used to driving in a Buick than a buggy.

Enos M. Hershberger, an Amish man living in DeKalb, gave me the opportunity to experience buggy travel on a recent clear morning. He welcomed me aboard for a trip from the village of Canton — out County Route 27 and Sykes Road — to visit a farm where he was doing some business.

If a vehicle is passing at 50 or 60 mph, it pulls the carriage, he said. “You’ll feel the suction of it.”

Boy, did I. And the feeling comes with little warning. The staccato clanging of trotting horseshoes on asphalt is surprisingly and piercingly loud. In a covered buggy, the clattering clip-clop, combined with the grinding sound of wooden or metal-rimmed wheels, blocks out much of the surrounding road noise. You really don’t hear a car or truck coming until the buggy is shaking and the speeding vehicle is by you.

The front seat gave me a good view of the vehicles as they passed. Some proceeded carefully — at times seemingly overcautious, swinging wide into the opposite lane to avoid the carriage. Others sped past, giving seemingly no notice to the buggy and passing by at a distance that felt perilously close.

Still, Mr. Hershberger believes St. Lawrence County motorists to be broadly courteous and careful around buggies.

“People here have horses,” he said. “All these people that have got horses, ponies, they understand what a horse is.”

Likewise, one of the ways to acclimate a young horse to buggy work is to keep it in a field near the road, so it grows up being familiar with road traffic, Mr. Hershberger said. “That helps a lot.”

Mr. Hershberger, who is in his late 50s, said he had never been in an accident.

For another Amish man from DeKalb, Enos D. Miller, the dangers of road traffic were powerfully demonstrated one December night in 2001.

It was dark and snowing. That much Mr. Miller remembers clearly about the moments before an errant car catapulted him and his young family from their horse-drawn buggy 12 years ago. There were lights, then an impact. Mr. Miller suffered a nasty, gushing gash to the head. But the enduring image is of his infant daughter lying in the middle of Rensselaer Falls Road in the town of Canton.

“Right on the road,” he repeated with quiet emphasis during a recent retelling of the crash.

The collision happened after one motorist “tapped his brakes to slow for a car he was following, lost control, crossed into the southbound lane and hit a single-horse-drawn buggy traveling south on the shoulder of the road,” according to a Times article about the collision.

“If there were a car where I was, he would have hit it,” Mr. Miller said.

An encounter that could have ended with four Amish funerals resulted only in relatively minor injuries. Mr. Miller, then 25, suffered cuts to his forehead. His wife, Mary, 27, daughter, Amanda E., 3 months, and son, Daniel, 4, suffered bumps to their heads. Their horse was unharmed. The motorist was ticketed.

It wasn’t Mr. Miller’s last tangle with a horseless carriage.

“I’ve had times where I’ve had to get completely off the road and take the ditch,” Mr. Miller said, describing how he somehow managed to keep his buggy upright to avoid close calls with cars.

Still, Mr. Miller acknowledges that safe travel requires care both by the Amish and by motorists. For the Amish, that means staying clear of the road whenever possible, good horsemanship, making sure buggies have the required amount of reflective tape and keeping their lanterns clean.

“It takes an effort on both sides,” he said.

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