AUGUSTA — Two years ago, when a Jeep-towed hayride crashed in the western Maine town of Mechanic Falls – killing an Oakland teenager and injuring more than 20 others – the tragedy was a stark reminder of the risks of recreational wagon rides, which the state does not regulate.

That lack of rules was important in this week’s trial of David Brown, the South Paris man who was driving the Jeep towing the hayride in 2014. Brown was charged with reckless conduct, but Tuesday a Sagadahoc County jury acquitted him of the misdemeanor charge. One part of Brown’s defense was that Maine has no specific rules governing the hayride he was towing that night.

After the crash, there were unsuccessful attempts by state lawmakers to regulate the more than 200 recreational wagon rides currently advertised around Maine.

The 2014 crash also caused farms and other organizations that offer wagon rides to think about the risks.

“This accident really changed people’s way of looking at things,” said Marilyn Meyerhans, who co-owns The Apple Farm in Fairfield and Lakeside Orchards in Manchester, where tractor-pulled wagon rides have been offered for some 40 years. “The fact that girl died was horrible enough, but many people were injured. It has made people look at themselves. There’s no question, everyone looks at what they do a little more carefully.”

But Meyerhans and others interviewed this week were also quick to point out safety measures they take, as well as the differences between their own rides and the haunted hayride that crashed in Mechanic Falls.

Known as the Gauntlet, the hayride included a relatively steep downward slope with a hairpin turn. According to investigators, other major factors in the accident were the poor condition of the Jeep’s brakes, the heavy load on the trailer and the lack of brakes on the trailer.

SAFETY FIRST

Since then, the family of the girl who died, Messalonskee High School student Cassidy Charette, has pushed for the state to strictly monitor similar operations.

A safety task force was formed, which included State Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas and Col. Robert Williams, chief of the Maine State Police. Last spring, though, the group issued a report saying the state doesn’t have the capacity to regulate motorized farm attractions.

While those interviewed this week commiserated with the victims of the 2014 crash, all said they already ensure the safety of their own operations and haven’t needed outside regulations.

“We really took (safety) seriously years and years ago,” Meyerhans said. “I did, because my kids are on those trailers all the time. I can’t imagine not taking this really seriously. People don’t go to a farm to have something bad happen.”

Meyerhans said her businesses’ rides are towed by tractors that are inspected and maintained every day, in part because the tractors are also needed for their agricultural work. They had wagons specifically made to carry passengers, their rides cross flat territory, and all of them happen during the daytime.

As the director of the town of Wells’ parks and recreations department, Tina LeBlanc organizes the annual haunted hayride put on by the town one night every year, which includes a variety of frightful scenes acted out by volunteers. Past scenes, LeBlanc said, have included a farm stand that grows and sells body parts and a drive-in movie theater that’s attacked by monsters.

“I like to think that it’s pretty scary,” she said.

Like Meyerhans, LeBlanc stressed the precautions Wells takes when running its hayride. Participants must view safety videos before and after the hayride, the course is flat and lined with battery-operated lights and the tractors pulling the trailers are all inspected beforehand, she said.

“It is about safety,” LeBlanc said. “It’s a dark night. People are jumping out. You’ve got to consider safety as a major factor. Precautions are necessary.”

‘IT BROUGHT AWARENESS’

But Wells did make two changes to its operation after the 2014 accident, LeBlanc said. Fire Department officials now inspect the course every year, and they bring an all-terrain vehicle with medical supplies to the hayride.

“It brought awareness,” LeBlanc said of the hayride crash.

When it hosts the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity every fall, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association arranges for tractor-pulled wagons that can bring people from the parking areas to the fairgrounds, said April Boucher, the fair’s director.

Safety has always been the “number one concern,” Boucher said.

After the 2014 crash, Boucher said, the fair did add another transportation option, a bus, in part for visitors who might have become concerned about the safety of wagon rides.

Meyerhans, the apple grower, said she opposes any extra regulations for farmers who host wagon rides, in part because farmers already have plenty of other regulations to abide by.

Judy Dimock also offers wagon rides at Northstar Orchards in Madison.

She agreed that more regulations would be a burden, and she stressed the difference between the tractor-pulled rides on her farm and the hayride that turned fatal in Mechanic Falls.

“In my personal experience, farmers who do what we do exercise good judgment,” Dimock said.

Charles Eichacker can be contacted at 621-5642 or at:

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