Hayrides, a regular fixture on family-run farms across the state, could come under increased scrutiny in light of Saturday’s accident in Mechanic Falls that killed a teenage girl and injured 22 others.

Investigators have focused their efforts on inspecting the trailer that carried the patrons of Harvest Hill Farms and the 1979 Jeep CJ-5 that pulled the trailer.

Police believe the Jeep had a mechanical malfunction that caused its brakes to fail, but it also may have been towing more weight than it could handle going downhill.

Per state law, farm tractors are exempt from inspections, but trucks that are used on farms are submitted to a partial annual inspection of major systems, including running gear, steering, brakes and exhaust.

Police would not say whether the Jeep involved was registered as a regular motor vehicle or a farm vehicle, but it still would have been subject to some sort of annual inspection. Authorities would not say whether the vehicle had been recently inspected.

The towing capacity for a Jeep of that era would be about 1,500 pounds, or half its weight, depending on the size of the engine and any modifications. Jeeps from that period tend to have larger, more powerful engines, which could make them more difficult to drive.

Jeffrey Reiff, a Philadelphia attorney who specializes in amusement park accidents, said he has been watching the Maine accident and it demonstrates the need for regulation of seasonal attractions such as hayrides. He said there are dozens of accidents, some fatal, across the country every year involving hayrides.

Ron Melacon, a former emergency medical technician from Richmond, Virginia, has been a national advocate for hayride safety. Like Reiff, he said states do not do enough to monitor the safety and condition of vehicles and trailers used in seasonal hayrides.

Rhode Island is the only state that appears to require a permit to operate hayrides, said James Hanseen, transportation program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

South Carolina and Texas laws mention the need for permits, but there’s no clear administrative regulations regarding what’s required, Hanseen said, according to The Associated Press.

In Maine and at least 14 other states, operators must display signs warning about dangers of the rides and saying that the operators are not liable for injury or death, Hanseen said.

Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, who represents Mechanic Falls in the Legislature, said he thinks it’s far too early to have a discussion about whether more regulations might be needed for temporary, seasonal attractions such as hayrides.

“The state fire marshal hasn’t even made a final determination on what happened,” he said. “Right now, I’m just praying for those families. And I think the folks at Harvest Hill are doing everything they can to make this (investigation) go as smooth as possible.”

Two years ago, a new law was passed in Maine that gave the state’s agro-tourism industry, including farms like Harvest Hill, better protection from liability. Agro-tourism, a growing industry in Maine, includes Christmas tree farms, pick-your-own fruit stands, corn mazes and maple sugarhouses.

The law, championed by the Republican-led Legislature, provides limited protection for landowners as long as they post signs warning visitors of any “inherent risks.”

Department of Public Safety spokesman Steve McCausland told the Associated Press that it was unclear whether Harvest Hill Farms had a warning sign, but that it was not a focus of the investigation.

The law does not mean business owners are exempt from buying insurance to protect visitors, but it means that anyone seeking to file a lawsuit must demonstrate more than just inherent risk.

Charles Peavey and his wife own Thunder Road Farm in Corinna, where they used to operate a night-time hayride. They no longer have hayrides at night.

“We got away from that because of the risks,” he said. “I’m not saying don’t do it, but it does come with some risks.”

Peavey said his hayride trailer was inspected by his insurance company but did not fall under state regulation. The tractors that he uses to pull his trailer are exempt from inspection.

Asked whether he would support more regulations for his operation, Peavey said yes.

“If all the farmers had a set of guidelines … I would fully respect that,” he said.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or:

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