MONTELLO, Wis. - With increasing traffic and a growing Amish community in Marquette County, law enforcement officials are taking a hands-on approach to improving safety.
The county is part of a consortium with Columbia and Green Lake counties, working with Amish in the area. Officials estimate there are about 1,000 in the Marquette County area.
The Marquette County Sheriff’s Department said over the past couple of years, they’ve had a few car and buggy crashes that haven’t resulted in major injuries, but there have been plenty of close calls – many that don’t get reported.
With liaisons, the department’s goal is to build trust with the community, so they do hear about these kinds of incidents, and try to prevent them in the first place.
"Things change so fast on the road when you're traveling 55 miles an hour, you never know what you're going to come across,” Capt. Les Crandall said. "Drivers seem to be more distracted with electronics."
In a fast moving world, some things stay the same.
Crandall often works with Lt. Aaron Williams, who is the department’s official liaison with the Amish. They know no matter where you're from, finding common ground starts with a solid relationship.
“It behooves us to be partners with them,” Williams said. "Being a liaison is nothing more than developing friendship."
Williams recalls a shaky start while visiting an Amish school.
"When I put my foot on the buggy, I thought I was going to flip this buggy over,” he said. "All of the kids were laughing, Capt. Crandall was laughing, but I was not laughing."
By now, the two are pretty well-known in area Amish communities.
"They all came over and said hi and were all happy to see us, which, that's a great relationship to have,” Crandall said.
"They call you by your first name,” Williams said. “Having that relationship, knowing their culture."
They said that means the Amish are more likely to report crimes and come to law enforcement with concerns, including working with the department to ensure a 6-foot shoulder will be part of an about 5-mile stretch of Highway 22 construction in the coming years.
"That takes them completely off the lane of traffic and makes it safer for them,” Crandall said.
Another safety component is lights, including a recent change in law requiring flashing lights on the backs of buggies.
"We've had obstacles with change, because change is only change until it's not new anymore,” Williams said, adding that since he’s worked with the Amish on ways to meet the law’s requirement, he’s seen a dramatic increase in compliance.
"Having that dialogue and communication really helped us help them and the motoring public,” Williams said.
Williams and Crandall also work with area drivers education programs, teaching new drivers to watch out for buggies and slow-moving vehicles.
Another thing that doesn't change is this advice on the road:
“Always be alert,” Crandall said. “Be a defensive driver. You’re going to see horse and buggies, Amish kids walking to school and things you probably never thought you’d see, but if you’re alert and ready for it, you’ll be safe for you and everybody else out on the highway.”