AUGUSTA, Maine — A hayride mishap that claimed the life of a 17-year-old Oakland girl last October at a farm in Mechanic Falls has Maine lawmakers grappling with what the state can or should do to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
On Monday, the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee heard testimony from Rep. Bob Nutting, R-Oakland, who said he didn’t have all the answers but knows something should be done to protect the safety of those who pay money to go on any type of amusement ride in Maine — including hayrides.
“Haunted or otherwise,” Nutting said.
Nutting is sponsoring LD 1057, a bill in response to the death of Cassidy Charette, a Messalonskee High School junior who died as a result of injuries she suffered in October. A 1979 Jeep hauling a trailer with at least two dozen people on it went off the trail and into a group of trees at Harvest Hill Farm’s Gauntlet Haunted Hayride in October 2014. Another 22 people were injured in the rollover.
Nutting said he doesn’t intend his law to be applied to anybody who offers a free ride on their farm equipment and gave the example of an apple farmer who may offer free rides to the orchard for visitors coming to pick apples. He said the bill is meant for those who charge for rides.
“When someone pays to get on a hayride or any other amusement ride, they should be able to have the reasonable expectation that somebody with expertise has inspected the ride and judged it to be safe,” Nutting said. “Nobody who paid to ride last October was able to have that expectation. The tragic loss of Cassidy Charette’s life may have been what it took to make things safer for all who look for a little fun and a little scare on an amusement ride.”
While most vehicles driven on public roads in Maine require an annual safety inspection and sticker documenting it, most farm vehicles, including farming tractors and trailers, are exempt from that requirement.
Nutting said many of his constituents feel the state needs a law to address the issue.
“And they have come to refer to it as Cassidy’s law,” Nutting said.
Under Nutting’s proposal, hayrides would be inspected and permitted much the way other mechanical amusement rides are. The state fire marshal’s office currently permits and inspects the rides operated at carnivals, fairs and amusement parks like Funtown-Splashtown in Saco.
Nutting’s bill doesn’t say which state agency should regulate hayrides, but Maine State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas said Thursday his agency was ill-equipped and unprepared to take on the regulation of hayrides.
Thomas said his office spends about $20,000 per year to keep investigators up to speed on mechanical amusement ride regulation and that adding hayrides to their responsibilities would mean additional training and likely additional staff.
“I’ve got to send them somewhere to get them trained. They have absolutely no expertise at all right now,” Thomas said.
Thomas also said his agency, which led the investigation on the Mechanic Falls mishap last year, did so because it was the only state agency that had any legal “authority even close to having a nexus connected to this incident.”
Thomas said that is because state law says the agency regulates amusement rides that travel over a “predetermined course.”
“It had absolutely nothing to do with the vehicle itself or the ride aspect of it,” Thomas said.
Thomas said in their investigation they cooperated closely with the state police and all of their findings have been left in the hands of the Androscoggin County district attorney’s office, which last said its investigation remained ongoing.
Nutting and others suggested regulating hayrides may be better handled by either the state police’s Commercial Vehicle Enforcement division or by state-authorized motor vehicle inspection stations. Those entities have expertise in motor vehicle safety inspections, Nutting said.
Thomas said his preliminary research suggests that there are more than 90 hayride-type operations in Maine each year. He also said there is a wide variety of vehicles, wagons and trailers that are used. He said some operators simply place bales of hay for seats on trailers while others have wagons that are fitted with passenger seating.
Thomas said those trailers are pulled by tractors, four-wheel drive vehicles and frequently horses.
He said an informal survey of a handful of hayride operators revealed a wide range of practices being deployed as well. He said in one instance a hayride operator said he would use as many as five different vehicles to pull different hayride trailers when demand at his farm warranted it.
The cost of developing a permitting and inspection regime for farm yard hayrides would be substantial, Thomas said, noting he would bring more information for the committee when it started its deliberation on the bill in the days ahead.
“The other thing I’m going to bring is one heck of a fiscal note,” Thomas said.
But lawmakers on the committee seemed undeterred and suggested that any new costs would have to be offset with permitting fees for those who want to operate hayrides on their farms or properties.