In Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, shoppers are nearly as likely to see buggies parked outside the grocery store or the doctor’s office as they are to see vehicles. The small town of just under 12,000 people has a large number of local businesses and draws customers from nearby Ethridge and Summertown, Tennessee, both of which have a sizable buggy-driving Amish population. Among Anabaptists, Amish communities are often traditional and live completely without electricity and modern conveniences, including cars.
Perhaps surprisingly, Amish communities are among the fastest-growing population groups in the United States, and their use of horse and buggies has created an infrastructure problem in some rural areas. In Lawrenceburg, for example, the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) is currently constructing a buggy lane exclusively for Amish use following a number of buggy-related accidents and ongoing safety issues.
Tennessee isn’t the only state doing this, either. In 2020, the Geauga County Maple Leaf reported that the Ohio Department of Transportation launched an $11.8 million safety initiative for 2021 and 2022 that included funding for buggy lanes. In 2022, the Ashland Source reported that State Route 545 in Ashland County, Ohio, would also receive a $5 million buggy lane.
More Buggies on Rural Roads
A growing Amish population likely means more buggies on rural roads across the country. In 2020, the Mennonite news site Anabaptist World reported that the horse-and-buggy-driving Amish population had doubled in 20 years, increasing by about 97% since 2000. According to a 2022 Amish population profile published by the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, the estimated population of the Amish community in North America in June 2022 was 373,620, an increase of about 12,150 since 2021. More than 62% of that population lives in Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, but there are communities outside those states — like the one in Lawrenceburg.
“The Amish have normal life expectancies,” said Dr. Alan Shuldiner, co-director of the University of Maryland Clinical and Translational Research Institute. ”They live more or less healthy lifestyles with high rates of physical activity. There’s not much in terms of excess fatalities during pregnancy or during delivery. It all adds up to, essentially, to an increase in population size.”
Shuldiner says that because large families are culturally valued, Amish birth rates have always been high. It’s not uncommon for couples to have seven or eight children. And while his research does not focus on transportation issues, he says there’s no doubt that buggy-driving Amish communities run the risk of vehicular accidents.
Paving the Way in Lawrence County
According to Lawrence County data analyzed by TDOT, there have been 15 “ridden animal/drawn conveyance” crashes over the past three years, although not all of them occurred where the buggy lane is currently under construction. TDOT also estimates that there are about four to five buggy-related accidents annually in Lawrence County.
“Our job at TDOT is to serve all Tennesseans who use our roadways, and that includes those who are using the roads but may not [be] in the seat of a car,” Rebekah Hammonds, TDOT community relations officer, said in an email to the Daily Yonder. “We’re hopeful that this path will provide community members who use a horse and buggy for transportation with a safer option.”
Liz Gingerich, a lifelong Lawrence County resident and Amish community member, said that while buggy accidents are few and far between, they can have lasting impacts. About 30 years ago, Gingerich said she and her family were rear-ended in a buggy. The accident caused her whiplash and neck pain, and she said sometimes she still suffers from stiffness and discomfort. While she doesn’t travel much in the summer, Gingerich said she will probably use the lane when going to town in the winter. She also said the use of bright reflective strips and lanterns on buggies, a popular safety measure that is now required by law, has increased their visibility at night. While Amish communities have long used reflective tape and lighting, a 2020 Tennessee bill expanded legal requirements to include two lanterns or lights and at least 100 square inches of reflector tape.
Drivers in Lawrence County have differing opinions on the buggy lane, although most support and appreciate their Amish neighbors. Thomas Cunningham, a Summertown resident, said he drives past the construction daily and sees the Amish community as a “cool factor” for the county. However, Cunningham said he thinks the money could have been spent more wisely, and that simply widening the road to include a broader shoulder would have been a more efficient option.
Myranda Thornton, a county resident who drives in Lawrenceburg daily, said she’s seen many near-accidents due to inattentive drivers and thinks the money is well-spent if it will increase safety measures.
“These folks are passed by cars and trucks who fly around them on double yellow lines without even slowing down,” Thornton said. “Whole families ride in these buggies, babies and kids, and people only care about getting to where they are going as fast as they can.”
County Executive David Morgan said construction is almost finished, and that it highlights the ability to include a unique community.
“The buggy lane is designed to protect our Amish residents as they travel along Lawrence County’s busiest highway, and I’m so happy to see it almost complete,” Morgan said in an email to the Daily Yonder. “We all know when a wreck involves an Amish buggy, the people in that buggy, and their horse, are very likely to receive severe injuries. The Amish have been part of this community since the early 1940s and we value and respect their lifestyle.”
It’s not a certainty that states across the nation will build more buggy lanes, or that infrastructure will require drastic change as the Amish population continues to grow. With or without construction of buggy lanes, however, Gingerich is among those who hope that non-Amish drivers, drivers that the Amish community calls “the English,” will pay more attention on the roads. She says safety measures like buggy lanes and reflector tape are helpful, but only if drivers are being responsible in the first place.