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Two years after fatal crash, safe hayrides still hinge on common sense

LEVANT, Maine — Jaime Welliver last week brought her children to Treworgy Family Orchards in Levant to pick apples, pumpkins and run through the corn maze. The first thing the children, who range in age from 14 months to 11, wanted to do was ride the haywagon around the property.

Welliver, 33, of Belfast said after the ride that she was not concerned about a crash as she and the children sat on bales of hay on a railed flatbed trailer pulled by a tractor.

“I had absolutely no worries about my safety or my kids’ safety,” she said after the ride.

Concerns about the safety of hayrides, which are unregulated in Maine and the rest of the country, were raised when Cassidy Charette, 17, of Oakland died after a trailer she was riding on overturned Oct. 11, 2014. The driver of a Jeep towing the wagon lost control of the vehicle on a downhill section of the ride during a haunted hayride at Harvest Hill Farms’ Pumpkin Land on Route 26 in Mechanic Falls.

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Twenty-one other people, most of whom were teenagers, were hurt. Several were treated at local hospitals for serious injuries.

Nearly two years after Charette’s death, efforts to make sure there is some oversight of farm amusement rides in Maine have come to a halt. Six bills introduced in the Legislature last session resulted in the creation of a working group made up of stakeholders.

They concluded in a March report that the state does not have the resources to oversee a “significant program of registration and permitting [that] would be required if [state] oversight were to be undertaken.”

That still leaves the burden on consumers to seek out safety guidelines, readily available on the internet, and to question owners and operators of hayrides to ensure they are being followed.

Also in the aftermath of the accident:

— Criminal charges were filed against Pumpkin Land, the Jeep driver — who has been found not guilty — and the mechanic who serviced it. The business and mechanic are to be tried later this year.

— The Charette family sued the farm’s owner, Peter J. Bolduc Jr., the driver and the mechanic, alleging the girl’s death was caused by negligence. A trial date has not been set.

The working group of stakeholders concluded that because “many of these tow vehicles are not used on public roads, there is no criteria for operational requirements other than the manufacturers’ recommendations and guidelines. Thus the state would be required to develop their own with no measureable engineering guidelines to go by.”

The group also could not definitively say how many farms or orchards in Maine offer hayrides, but it estimated there are between 250 and 400. Members concluded that it could offer recommendations for operators and the public.

A fact sheet for operators, created by the cooperative extension at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and a safety checklist prepared by the Rural Mutual Insurance Co. in Madison, Wisconsin, were posted on the Maine state government’s website for the first time last week.

“We saw and considered several lists, but these seemed the most substantive,” said Maine State Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas. “If I was a conscientious consumer, I could look through those lists, and if I went someplace and got on a ride, I could look at it and decide if it probably is safe or not.”

Both documents are similar to others available on websites such as the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety site and New Hampshire Department of Agriculture site.

The operators of several farms and orchards recently contacted by the Bangor Daily News all indicated they had already implemented safety standards for hayrides that are nearly identical to those guidelines.

“Any time you are moving large amounts of people with heavy machinery, there’s risk involved,” Matthew Pellerin, the agricultural manager at Treworgy Family Orchards, said last week. “We have definitely thought through our systems to ensure that they are safe. There’s a whole bunch of different components … but one of the most important is the vehicle itself.

“Large tractors are really the best for hayrides because they are inherently slow machines,” he said. “So, the dangers of going too fast are kind of mitigated because these things are meant to go slow. We try and match the tractor’s size with the weight of the wagon. Our particular hayride with a full load of people on it weighs 4,000 to 5,000 pounds and that about matches up to the tractor.”

Barbara Peavey, whose family owns and operates the Thunder Road Farm in Corinna, said in an email that when the farm began operating hayrides, it got some safety information from the farm’s insurance company, but “most of our rules just came from me and common sense.”

“We are safe because we are on flat ground, our wagon is inspected by a mechanic that has been one for a lot of years, we haul it with a tractor and go in first gear so we go slow, and our wagon has seats with metal sides that go all the way around it, and it is properly hitched.”

The Pumpkin Land hayride used a 1979 Jeep, not a tractor, with a towing capacity of 2,000 pounds, according to the complaint filed in July in Kennebec County Superior Court. The wagon, which had no seats, handholds or railings, and the passengers that night weighed about 5,400 pounds. At the time of the crash, the Jeep’s brakes were not functioning properly, a report by the Maine state fire marshal, which permits and inspects rides operated at carnivals, fairs and amusement parks, concluded.

All of those allegations, if proven to be true, violated the recommended guidelines posted on various websites and sited by hayride operators.

It is too early to tell if the next Legislature should consider bills to regulate hayrides, according to Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, a member of the Transportation Committee that would review such measures.

“When this case is finished [making its way through criminal and civil courts] we will get a better idea as to the need for legislative action,” he said Tuesday in an email. “I’m not convinced at this point anyone knows enough about the details of this case that would warrant legislation. However, if the trial[s] produce obvious evidence that we need to change the law then that should be a priority of the Transportation Committee.”

Welliver said that she takes her children to visit long-established agribusinesses and has faith that the owners are running safe operations.

“I like that the kids actually get to see how a farm works,” she said. “This gives us the opportunity to actually see things growing and the kids picking their own vegetables and their own fruits, and it’s much more satisfying.”


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