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As Halloween Approaches Hayrides Are Still Unregulated in Nearly All States

Hayrides are an exciting and enjoyable way to spend a fall afternoon or a crisp autumn evening. While the daytime hayrides are often tamer and focus on touring the farm and its agricultural activities, trips at night are often more eventful and targeted towards older teens and adults. Nighttime haunted hayrides often turn-up the thrill factor by having employees dress up in costume to scare riders. At some facilities, the driver may pump the brakes or gas to make the tractor hitch and lurch ahead unexpectedly. While these additional thrills can make the ride more exciting, they can also lead to unpredictable situations.

For instance, a shocked or startled rider could easily fall from the tractor or knock another rider to the ground from the trailer. The configuration of the trailer including whether the vehicle is equipped with sufficient guardrails or safety restraints plays heavily into the likelihood of this risk. Likewise, unexpected braking and acceleration can not only cause a rider to fall from the hayride but also, as in the fatal Harvest Hill accident, it can lead to vehicle stability issues that can result in a rollover accident that can produce severe, life-altering injuries or death.

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Why Aren’t Hayrides Federally Regulated by NHTSA, CPSC or Another State or Federal Agency?

One might expect for hayrides to be heavily regulated in order to protect the children, teens, and families who typically ride. Unfortunately, in most states across the United States, hayrides are wholly unregulated.

If you thought that federal regulation would be the saving grace here, think again. Hayrides are not regulated by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Consumer Product Safety Commission, or even an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While there are regulations for trailers weighing more than 3,000 pounds, there are few regulations targeting trailers weighing less than 3,000 pounds.

Trailer manufacturers are intimately familiar with this fact and many other aspects of the laws that can potentially govern and regulate the characteristics of a trailer. As such, many trailers are produced with a gross weight just below the 3,000-pound weight threshold that would trigger federal regulation. Since the trailers are not federally regulated by any agency, there are no nation-wide reporting standards for accidents in effect. In fact, in many states, there is no requirement for a farm or hayride provider to disclose an incident or accident.

In short, the reason for this lack of regulation is that gaps in the federal regulatory regime leave all regulation to local, county, or state authorities. Most of these authorities, including in Pennsylvania, have failed to address this gap in regulation despite accidents showing the real risks of hayrides and the trailers used in them.  While Maine’s legislature has considered, passed, and overridden a veto on hayride safety regulation in Maine, Rhode Island is the only other state with regulations on the book. Parents and caregivers should keep these facts in mind when considering a hayride provider. Cautious and contentious parents or guardians should ask about the safety precautions in place and the incidence of any accidents at the facility.

What Are the Biggest Reasons Behind Hayride Accidents and Safety Failures?

At some farms, farmers may think that setting up a hayride is merely a matter of connecting any wagon that may be available to a vehicle that can tow. In fact, in a 2014 Lancaster Online article Jim Stauffer, owner of the Country Barn Market, remarked the same statement that “The sad fact is, some farmers think you just hook a wagon to a tractor.”

This fear was borne out in the 2014 Harvest Hill hay ride tragedy. There, a trailer was hitched to a 1979 Jeep CJ5 with an approximate curbside weight of 2,700 pounds. The CJ5, when in good condition, is rated to carry an estimated payload of 1010 pounds and has a maximum towing weight of up to 2,000 pounds. Unfortunately, the Jeep was unlikely to be in pristine condition because of the vehicle’s age. Furthermore, questions regarding the sufficiency actual maintenance performed on the vehicle have been raised in the aftermath of the accident. While it is highly likely that the vehicle was in less than pristine shape, for the purposes of this analysis let’s use the 2,000 point maximum towing weight for a good condition CJ5.

Showing the considerations that must go into vehicle choice, there is a high likelihood that the trailer was overloaded in light of the CJ5’s towing capacity.  Consider that there were, at least, 23 people on the trailer. Even if every person on this trailer only weighed 100 pounds, the weight being carried on the trailer would already equal 2300 pounds in excess of the Jeep CJ5’s towing capacity. Officials have estimated that the trailer was carrying about 30 people at the time of the crash meaning that the cargo alone weighed about 3000 pounds. Without even accounting for the weight of the trailer itself, the towing limit of the Jeep was grossly exceeded.

Unfortunately, this was far from the only reason as to why the CJ5 was a poor choice as a towing vehicle. The CJ5 Jeep is known to be particularly susceptible to rollover accidents due to its high center of gravity, low vehicle weight, and narrow wheel-base. A 1981 IIHS report characterized the Jeep CJ5 as having the “Highest Rollover Crash Rate.” Unfortunately, the terrain where the hayride was held was particularly hilly and the driver of the Jeep would often accelerate and drive somewhat erratically to the delight of passengers. The inherent characteristics of the vehicle, the wear and tear on the 35-year-old Jeep, the terrain it was driven on, and the likely gross overloading of the trailer all played a role in causing this tragic accident. Other factors that can cause or increase the risk of a hayride accident include:

  • Trailer hitch failure
  • Rusted belts
  • Insufficient vehicle maintenance
  • Failure of trailer door safety latch
  • Trailer with insufficient guardrails
  • Unbalanced trailer load
  • Lack of safety chains
  • Lack of safety rails

Unfortunately, there are many other factors that can contribute to a hayride accident. Concerned parents and caregivers should always use common sense regarding safety and furthermore, they can use these factors to help guide their due diligence into the facility.

Will an Event Similar to the Harvest Hills Tractor Accident Occur this Year?

It is impossible to say whether another accident will occur, but we can say that in all states but Maine legislators failed to take any regulatory action that would make hayrides safer in 2015 than they were in 2014. However, the hope is after the Harvest Hills hayride fatality and injuries that farms and other agri-tainment businesses would realize that running a hayride safely takes more than hitching any old truck to a wagon and loading in people. But, it only takes one farm or facility to fail to heed these warnings or to think that “it can’t happen here” before it does happen here.

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Therefore parents, guardians, and other caregivers should always look into a facility before they allow their children or teens to ride. While most farms do not have any obligation to report accidents to a state or federal agency, many serious incidents are reported on by the news media. If googling the name of a farm turns up reports of accidents and injuries, an additional inquiry into the farm and whether they have taken corrective action to prevent further incidents should be performed. Concerned parents can also reach out to state and national legislators to make their thoughts on the lack of regulations and reporting known. After all, where it is possible parents should be given the information they need to make informed safety decisions for their family.

Injured in a Hayride Accident?

If you have been seriously injured or if a loved one has been killed on a hayride, you may be entitled to compensation for your injuries, medical bills, and other losses. The personal injury attorneys of The Reiff Law Firm are dedicated to fighting for injured Pennsylvanians. To schedule a free and confidential initial consultation call our firm at (215) 709-6940 today.

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