AUGUSTA, Maine — A hayride accident that claimed the life of a teenage girl from Oakland and sent 22 others to the hospital last October has prompted an outpouring of proposed law changes.
The titles of six different bills released Thursday and sponsored by Democrats and Republicans, including top leaders in both parties, suggest lawmakers are hoping to prevent the type of tragedy that claimed the life of 17-year-old Cassidy Charette.
Charette was riding on a wagon being towed behind a late-model Jeep during a haunted hayride event at Harvest Hill Farms’ Pumpkin Land on Route 26 in Mechanic Falls when the Jeep driver lost control of the vehicle and the wagon overturned.
Maine, like many states, currently has no laws regulating farmyard amusements or requiring safety inspections of hayrides. Following the accident, national advocates for hayride safety urged Maine lawmakers and Congress to create safety standards and an inspection regime.
State Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, is working on a bill requiring an operator of an amusement ride or an antique vehicle to sign an affidavit attesting to the vehicle’s safety.
Saviello said Thursday his bill is meant to address the hayride situation but also a 2013 fatal accident in Bangor that involved an antique fire truck that had its brakes fail as it went down a hill in a Fourth of July parade.
He predicted lawmakers would find some compromise but “something is going to happen, that I can guarantee.”
“We have to be careful,” Saviello said. “We want to react to this problem and try to prevent it from happening again.”
State Rep. Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, said a bill he hopes to author requires farm amusement rides to be inspected prior to opening to the public.
Nutting said he was asked to submit legislation to enhance amusement ride safety measures by a relative of a young woman who survived the accident in Mechanic Falls.
“If you are going to have a commercial ride going on, in order for the public to feel reasonably safe, somebody with some expertise ought to take a look at it,” Nutting said.
Nutting said he wants inspectors from the state fire marshal’s office, the State Police Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division or some other authorized state agency to approve the hayride events.
If requiring farms to pay a licensing fee to cover the cost of the inspections is necessary, Nutting said he would support that, too.
“If that requires you pay a $5 or $20 fee, then so be it,” Nutting said. “That’s just a part of the cost of doing business.”
He said the teens involved in the accident in Mechanic Falls, or even most people, don’t have the ability to judge the safety of a hayride.
“I just think when somebody gets on a hayride or some kind of ride, they should have a reasonable expectation that somebody with some expertise has looked at it and said, ‘We believe that’s safe.’”
Nutting said another bill, sponsored by state Sen. President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, intends to correct a mistake made in a 2014 law change that inadvertently removed the state’s ability to inspect carnival rides, like those set up on a midway at a fair. New regulations may simply become a part of that fix, he said.
“I’m not interested in the legal side of it so much, either criminal or civil,” Nutting said. “I’m interested in making sure that it hopefully doesn’t happen again — or at least reducing the chances that it happens again,” Nutting said. “But I don’t want it to be so strict that if you go out to the orchard and they offer to give you a ride on a tractor pulling a trailer they have to get a license.”
House Majority Leader Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said he too requested legislation in the wake of the Mechanic Falls tragedy. McCabe said it was likely the six titles released Thursday would be merged into a bill or two that lawmakers would work through to create new laws and regulations.
McCabe said he and other lawmakers recognize that not all hayrides are risky or designed for only thrill-seekers.
“There is quite a variety of hayrides out there,” McCabe said. “There’s the hayride when I go to my local orchard and they tow us a quarter mile behind a tractor and then there is the hayride that has sort of evolved over time to be events at night, sort of a spooky theme.”
McCabe said said the discussion between lawmakers will also likely include definitions for what a hayride is compared to an amusement ride that may require greater oversight.
Another proposed bill would require amusement ride operators to carry a certain amount of liability insurance.
Both Nutting and McCabe said the bills are a direct reaction to the Mechanic Falls accident. Both lawmakers also said they don’t intend overly onerous regulation for Maine’s agritourism businesses, but they do want to improve safety.
Lawmakers will also have to wrestle with how much increased regulation will cost the state.
“We shouldn’t be jeopardizing public safety to try to save some money,” McCabe said. “If we need to add some positions in the fire marshal’s office to ensure public safety, I think it’s an appropriate thing we do.”