HUNTINGTON TWP. — When Levi Shetler and his friend and work partner Jon Swartzentruber were hit by a driver Jan. 18 in an accident that left Swartzentruber dead, it was the 14th time Shetler was hit while traveling in an Amish buggy.
Shetler, 54, of Huntington Township, is recovering from the crash on state Route 58 and looks remarkably unscathed for a man who has had so many brushes with death. He’s attending outpatient physical therapy, is up and moving and a neighbor drives him to appointments.
He said this accident was by far the worst of the 14, and ligaments in his neck and other parts of his body cause him constant pain.
“My doctor tells me I’m pushing it too much,” he said during an interview Friday in his home on state Route 162 after finishing lunch with his wife of 30 years.
Shetler said his particular group of Amish, known as Swartzentruber Amish, has strict rules on methods of travel, which forbid placement of lights on buggies. They use only Ohio Department of Transportation-approved reflectors and a red lantern on the back of buggies, and they can’t take rides in vehicles except for doctor’s appointments or emergencies.
Shetler said several Amish people he knows have died in buggy accidents over the years.
Swartzentruber, 25, of Homerville, had three children, including a 2-month-old baby, and his wife, Lydia, is a widow being looked after by the Amish community and other non-Amish residents in the Wellington area whom the Amish refer to as “English.”
Swartzentruber’s uncle, Sam Swartzentruber, was hit in a similar manner while driving a buggy through an intersection in an area southeast of Wooster just 10 days after his nephew died. Sam Swartzentruber died Wednesday, Shetler said, and the family is holding yet another funeral this week.
This first of Shetler’s accidents happened when he was 21, he said. Ten of the accidents occurred during daylight hours and four in the dark. Jan. 18 was the first time someone in an accident Shetler was involved in died.
Shetler’s wife, Dalila, has been married to her husband for 13 of his 14 accidents.
“It’s just the way it is, I guess,” she said.
Despite the accidents and deaths, Shetler said he won’t change the way he travels or marks his buggy. Shetler said he’s on the road almost daily and as long as he works, he’ll continue to get there by horse and buggy.
“It’s part of our religion, and I don’t doubt it,” he said.
While on the road traveling at a pace much slower than those who travel rural roads by car, Shetler said, he’s had time to observe.
While driving a 2-mile stretch between Bursley and Jones roads recently, Shetler said, he counted 11 people coming toward his buggy who were either talking on phones or texting. That’s not counting the people coming from behind who might have been using phones, Shetler said.
Shetler said he often sees ruts and debris on the side of the road where it is obvious a car veered from the pavement for one reason or another.
People often fail to turn down their high beams when approaching Amish buggies head-on, Shetler said. It’s fine to approach from the rear with high beams, he said, but doing so from the front blinds the driver and the horse, which leads to buggies swaying and horses pulling wildly. It also can blind any drivers approaching from the rear, Shetler said.
Shetler said he can’t help but feel there are many people in the non-Amish community who view the Amish as a nuisance and would prefer they give up their ways for the conveniences of modern life.
People think the Amish don’t pay taxes, but Shetler pointed out they pay property and income taxes, which includes money that goes to public schools they don’t use.
The Amish don’t pay into Social Security, but Shetler said they sign government paperwork at the age of 21 that says they will never draw from it.
Shetler said he wonders if negative or false perceptions about the Amish lead to aggressive driving on roads.
It’s not uncommon for people to get extremely close to buggies, their car hubcaps sometimes touching the buggy wheels, or drive by within inches at 70 mph revving the engine and scaring the horse. Shetler has lost count of the times people fly by waving their arms, screaming or making obscene gestures, something he said farmers on tractors encounter as well.
“They go by so fast, it actually shakes the buggy, Shetler said. “We have quite a bit of that happening, and it seems to be happening more and more.”
This isn’t at all what happened in the recent accident Shetler was involved in, a point Shetler repeatedly stressed.
He said he doesn’t blame Mark Jones, 61, of Jeromesville, for what happened and he feels terrible that Jones, whom he knows, was involved. The Amish community sent a letter to Jones’ employer Eric McConnell, of McConnell Excavating, offering their sympathy.
They have established a three-member steering committee to help communicate with the public on safety-related issues, the letter said, and they know Jones is carrying an emotional burden.
Jones, who could not be reached for comment, was invited along with Eric McConnell to meet with members of the Amish community to talk about what happened. The letter writer, Eli Hostetler, wrote that his son died at the age of 26 in a buggy accident.
“I don’t know how I could explain our sympathy well enough for you to understand it all, and I don’t expect that we even realize what affect this all has on Mark,” Hostetler wrote.
Sometimes the best thing to do when such things happen is to sit down and talk, he wrote.