For years the regulation of farm hayrides to prevent accidents and injuries in Maine was handled by the State Fire Marshal’s Office. That is, it was handled by the Office until the provision authorizing it to do so was mistakenly jettisoned by the previous legislature. Since the authority to regulate was revoked, one of the few remaining safeguards regarding the safety of farm vehicles that could be used for agritainment purposes was that a limited brake inspection is required for farm vehicles that will be driven on public roads within 20 miles of the farm’s main entrance. But vehicles that are only driven on private property — like many used in hayrides –are not subject to any inspection or regulatory requirements. In light of the nearly 100 businesses in Maine offering hayrides, this lack of regulation and oversight created a perfect storm of conditions. It was in this regulatory vacuum where problems and a lack of concern for safety could develop.
The Deadly Hayride Accident
At The Reiff Law Firm, we first wrote about the tragic hayride accident at Harvest Hill Farms in October of 2014. In fact, Jeffrey Reiff appeared on and was interviewed by NBC WCSH-6 for insight into the deadly crash.
For those who don’t remember the situation, the accident occurred in October 2014 at a farm with more than 500 people visiting to participate in fall activities and festivities. Essentially, there’s a lot of people – with some in costume and celebrating Halloween early –, a great deal of noise, and an undersized 1979 Jeep CJ5 pulling a large trailer fully-loaded with bales of hay and twenty-four excited passengers.
The hayride sets out from the barn slowly at first. But, as the vehicle pulls away the driver will often brake hard several times and add excitement by making the vehicle jerk. Then as the driver approaches the hill, he accelerates the vehicle to make for a thrilling hill climb. Unfortunately, a momentary desire to spice up the ride can cause significant safety problems.
Consider that the light towing vehicle will now have an accelerating wagon behind it. The Jeep is only rated to tow up to 2,000 pounds and, with at least 24 passengers, the trailer is likely to have exceeded that weight. The Jeep that is towing the hayride is known to have an extremely high rollover crash-rate in comparison to contemporary, similar vehicle models. Furthermore, aging CJ5s are known to have issues with the factory Pitman arm, steering shaft coupler, body locking hubs, and power steering box. Finally, the rear trailer is not double-wheeled which significantly reduces its stability nor is there a secondary set of brakes or other safety system to slow the vehicle.
While the official investigation has yet to be completed, it is extremely likely that at least some of these factors and risks played a role in causing the crash. The driver has already admitted that he missed a turn and has reported some mechanical troubles, but all of these factors plus the steep embankment contributed to sending the hayride trailer tumbling down the slope and into a tree.
What Amusement and Hayride Safety Regulations Would The Bill Create?
While a number of bills and pieces of legislation have been proposed, one of the bills that has received the most attention is LD1057, An Act To Increase the Safety of Amusement Rides. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Robert Nutting who in response to the bill’s introduction and the fatal hayride accident was quoted by the Bangor Daily News stating:
When someone pays to get on a hayride or any other amusement ride, they should be able to have the reasonable expectation that somebody with expertise has inspected the ride and judged it to be safe. Nobody who paid to ride last October was able to have that expectation. The tragic loss of Cassidy Charette’s life may have been what it took to make things safer for all who look for a little fun and a little scare on an amusement ride.
The hayride regulation bill would immediately reinstate the authority of the State Fire Marshal to inspect hayride amusement rides. The bill would also define the term amusement device to include not only obstacle courses, bungee jumping, and waterslides but also hayrides. Any operator of an amusement device must obtain a license from the state while agreeing to provide the name of the operator or operating corporation, the geographic area where the amusement will be displayed or available, a certification of liability insurance, and agree to the terms and conditions regarding safety inspections. In many ways, the bill would see hayrides regulated in a similar fashion to amusement parks and carnivals. The bill also would authorize the Commissioner of Public Safety to develop and adopt rules to implement the law.
There are still issues with the proposed law to address. To begin with, State Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas stated to a legislative committee that tractor and trailer inspections are outside of the knowledge of his investigators because there are significant differences between the rides found at fairs and carnivals and the re-purposed farm equipment in use at many farms offering hayrides. Furthermore, Mr. Thomas stated that some type of permitting process would need to be implemented first so that the agency would know the scope of the industry and the identity of individuals and companies offering hayrides. The use of State Police inspectors or private inspection companies has been suggested as possible solutions to these concerns.
In short, this bill offers a good first step towards addressing a safety problem that was brought into the public spotlight after an unfortunate tragedy. Since we cannot change what has happened, all we can do is learn from our past mistakes so that no individual suffers an avoidable hayride injury or death in the future. Let’s hope that this bill or other similar hayride regulation legislation corrects the gap left in Maine’s regulatory regime before the fall and the next hayride season.