A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Keven Moore: Hayrides may be a right of passage during the fall, but real dangers exist on the trail


As the leaves begin to change colors and the pumpkins come out, many families will be attending fall outings and festivals where hayrides have been fall tradition for decades.

Hayrides are designed for a relaxing and scenic activity consisting of a recreational ride in a wagon or cart pulled by a tractor, horses or a truck, which has been loaded with hay or straw for comfortable seating. Historically hayrides have been held as celebratory activities, usually in connection the autumn harvest. Hayrides originated with farmhands and working farm children riding loaded hay wagons back to the barn for unloading, which was one of the few times during the day one could stop to rest.

(Image from Wikimedia)

By the late 19th century and the spread of the railroads, tourism and summer vacations in the country had become popular with urban families, many of whom had read idealized accounts of hayrides in children’s books. To capitalize on the demand, local farmers began offering “genuine hayrides” on wagons loaded with hay, since one could make more cash income selling rides to “summer people” than by selling the same wagon-load of hay (although most farmers did both).

Churches were quick to include such activities on their properties or at a church member’s farmland. Over time the hayride became a real fall tradition, although the original concept of riding on top of a load of hay gradually was replaced with a simple ride in a wagon sitting on bales of hay intended to cushion the ride. As time has progressed especially over the past few years, many farmers have even introduced haunted hayrides and even zombie paintball hayrides.

Contemporary hayrides are often organized commercially, providing an additional source of income for farms or existing on their own. Hayrides may feature a stop at a pumpkin patch where passengers can pick a pumpkin or be dropped off to pick apples. Hayrides may also deliver customers to the entrance of a corn maze.

But how safe are these fall festival events with hayrides?

• In October 2014 a 17-year-old girl died and 22 other people were injured after a Halloween-themed hayride trailer being pulled by a jeep jackknifed, causing it to careen down a hill striking a tree and overturning at the Harvest Hill Farms in Poland, Maine. Investigators later discovered that the rear brakes did not work, its front brakes were not functioning properly, and the jeep was hauling more than double its intended towing capacity. The owners later admitted being criminal negligence and plead guilty to a felony charge of driving to endanger. The family of the girl filed and later settled a wrongful death lawsuit as well.

• In October 2013 nine people went to the hospital after a tractor-pulled hayride tipped over in Milford Township, MI. The driver later was found to have a blood-alcohol level just below the legal limit and was charged with reckless driving.

• In Oct 2016 in Chunky, MS, a mother and her two children were killed and six others were critically injured when a truck slammed into the rear of a trailer pulling parents and kids on a hayride out on to the highway. Just when the sun was starting to set and visibility was poor.

• In October 2014, twelve people were on the hayride when a part came loose as the tractor went down an embankment, causing the vehicle to tip at the Bengtson’s Pumpkin Farm in Homer Glen, Illinois. A 39-year-old man, a 3-year-old and the child’s grandmother were transported to Silver Cross Hospital with minor injuries. The tractor was pulling five hay racks when the fourth one detached and tipped.

With any event that involves the public, small children riding on moving equipment sometimes in the evening hours or darkness, accidents will happen and in some cases tragically. The potential for injuries that occur with hayride accidents is usually quite significant because of the number of people involved and the size and weight of the equipment.

(Photo from Wikimedia)

The problem is that there isn’t any formal training on how to pull a trailer or wagon meant for cargo and not 1-2 dozen people. Many trailers and wagons out there are in bad condition, and because they are intended for agriculture use, the owner does not need a license to operate on his/her property. In many cases, most of the trailers are made to be just under the gross weight of 3000 lbs. so they are not to be subject to any registrations or regulations.

In some cases many trailers and wagons used by farms are homemade and there isn’t anybody verifying that they are built and maintained safely. All that most states ask for is that the lights are working at the time of registration if the gross weight goes above 3000 pounds.

A common carrier whose purpose is to transport individuals from place to place owes a duty to the highest standard of care but because seasonal hayride operators usually never leave their property, they are not considered to be a common carrier and do not fall under those strict regulations by the federal government. Then because they aren’t truly classified amusement attractions, they are also not subject inspections and safety regulations by the state or local municipality.

Therefore since the hayrides and the quasi-amusement industry are highly unregulated; there is no uniform system for reporting injuries. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has estimated that the number of serious injuries and deaths from hayrides has risen dramatically.

Many farms that offer hayrides for profit or their local church events are grossly under-insured when it comes to liability coverage and operators should be sure to check with their insurance agent to make sure the level of liability insurance is adequate.

Here are some helpful safety tips if you are operating or planning on a hayride for profit or your local church:

Plan Your Route: Routes should be free of steep hills, bumps, overhead branches, wires, irrigation heads, sharp turns, uneven ground, and poorly drained soil and always avoiding on-road travel. Make sure appropriate running lights are operational and use a slow-moving vehicle sign as required by local laws if operated on public roadways. The driver should never take a spontaneous detour as the chosen route has been vetted for any obstacles and altering it could bring unforeseen dangers.

Safe Drivers: Choose drivers over the age of 21, who are experienced and have a clean driving record. Have your insurance carrier run an MRV on the driver. It’s important to also train drivers before operating the tractor with passengers. If the driver is unable to stop and start smoothly, passengers can be easily thrown from the wagon, resulting in injury.

Establish Safety Rules & Communicate Them: The public should be informed of all safety rules and they should be posted for them to see, and they should be recited with the riders before the start of the hayride.

Tractor, Equipment Selection and Preparation: Make sure that your tractor or vehicle has the adequate towing capacity to handle the weight of the trailer/wagon riders. Make sure that the vehicle and trailer are serviced by a trained technician and documentation of that service visit is kept. Only use wagons with side rails that are high enough to prevent people from falling off the wagon when seated—usually three to four feet. Sturdy side rails also offer back support for seated passengers. Drivers and/or attendants should carry cell phones in the event of an emergency. Also, the towing vehicle should be equipped with a fire extinguisher, flashlight, and first-aid kit.

Inspect Daily: All hayride equipment needs to be properly maintained and well equipped. Inspect the towing vehicle and wagon before each trip, especially the tires and tow hitch. Ensure the hitch attaching the tractor to the wagon is properly secured with a well-designed hitch pin and safety chains. Look for defective side rails on the wagon and loading/unloading platforms. Be on the lookout for splinters, loose floorboards, and exposed nails. Repair any hazards or faulty equipment before starting on a ride. Fresh dry straw should be used for hayrides.

Training and Communication: Drivers should be trained specifically in the operation of the tractor or vehicle safely. He/she should be licensed and should always maintain a safe slow speed. Employees loading and unloading the visitors to be trained have some first aid experience and be able to use a fire extinguisher. Additionally, utilizing two-way radios or visual communication between employees can be a big help.

Crowd Control: Managing the flow of your visitors is very important and you should post adequate safety signage. Erect some sort of barricade or fencing at the loading and unloading station. Make sure visitors are entering and exiting one at a time and your employees can control the flow of visitors on and off the wagon.

Loading and Unloading: To avoid injuries getting on or off the hayride, having a well-organized procedure and designated loading and unloading areas is essential. Provide a sturdy stepping platform with a handrail for passengers to use when mounting or dismounting the wagon. Do not allow passengers to climb over the sides to enter or exit the wagon. Damp or wet straw can be slippery and prone to mold.

During The Ride: You should only pull only one wagon behind a tractor at a time. Set a maximum limit should be set for how many people can safely be seated on the wagon. Ensure that all participants fit comfortably within the wagon’s side rail enclosure, with ample room to remain comfortably seated throughout the ride. Enforce a “no standing policy” as a safety procedure during the ride. Riders should remain seated while underway and keep their arms and legs within the perimeter of the side rails. Have at least one adult attendant, in addition to the driver, on each trip to help supervise the group. The attendant should assist passengers with boarding and exiting the wagon, properly seat participants for their comfort and safety, and explain hayride rules. Refuse to allow any intoxicated riders on to the trailer.

Be Safe My Friends

Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He is also an expert witness. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both Lexington and Northern Kentucky. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.


Related Posts

Leave a Comment