Fill a wagon with hay, hook it to a tractor, pile in some folks and head for the nearest field.
It’s a typical autumn activity in Lancaster County. Do it at night and throw a few spooks in that field, and you’ve got the makings of a haunted hayride.
But hayrides, of the ghostly or pastoral variety, are under scrutiny after a fatal accident last week in Maine.
“The sad fact is, some farmers think you just hook a wagon to a tractor,” says Jim Stauffer, owner of the Country Barn Market at 211 S. Donerville Road. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”
On Oct. 13, mechanical problems caused a Jeep towing a wagon full of passengers to careen down a hill and into a tree at the Gauntlet Haunted Night Ride in Mechanic Falls. A teenager was killed, and more than 20 people were injured.
Maine does not regulate hayrides by setting safety standards for them. Neither does Pennsylvania.
In fact, only one state — Rhode Island — has anything about hayride standards on the books, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In Pennsylvania, the Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Ride and Measurement Standards oversees amusement attractions, but hayrides are not under its jurisdiction.
“It’s funny,” Field of Screams co-owner Jim Schopf says. “The haunted attraction industry is regulated by the Department of Agriculture, but only when it comes to haunted houses. ... Being the Department of Ag, you’d think they would regulate hayrides, too. But they do not.”
“There’s such a liability issue,” notes Cathy Kornfield, at Cherry Crest Adventure Farm, 150 Cherry Hill Road, Ronks. “Everyone has to be careful.”
Kornfield says Cherry Crest co-owner Jack Coleman aided in drafting guidelines on operations, equipment and passenger safety for Penn State Agriculture Safety & Health.
“But they are guidelines, not laws,” she says.
“Most people in the business police themselves very well,” she says. “They want to provide a safe service.”
Field of Screams, at 191 College Avenue, Mountville, was among the first group of “haunters” to work with the state ag office to devise standards for haunted houses, Schopf says.
“It may be safe, and you hope everyone is doing the right things, but it only takes one to have an incident,” he adds. “I hate to say it — like I want to be regulated more — but I’d rather have everyone doing things safely and not have a blemish on our industry.”
He says regulations should be basic but comprehensive: perform daily inspections, use a checklist, log your results. Check tire pressure and the pins and hitches that secure the tractor to the wagon. Double up on safety chains.
Coleman, however, doesn’t think state regulations are necessary.
The guidelines “are pretty good,” he says, and most hayride operators follow them closely.
“There are so many variables, to lay down some kind of blanket restrictions would ruin it for everyone," he says.
At Country Barn, Stauffer says, operators have their own guidelines that they follow.
“We do safety inspections daily,” he says. “Our hay wagons are designed for safety.”
Safety measures range from double safety chains on wagons to a safety course for drivers.
State Rep. Bryan Cutler, whose legislative district spans southern Lancaster County, says he doesn’t see a need for new laws.
“It is my opinion that our existing laws regarding negligence cover situations where someone operates ... a vehicle towing a wagon that results in an injury,” he wrote in an email Thursday.
In cases of carelessness, he added, criminal charges of reckless endangerment could also apply.