A state lawmaker wants to require safety checks of uninspected vehicles that transport the public or are used to pull hayrides, a change he says could prevent accidents such as one that killed a Maine teen last fall.

Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, said his bill is a direct response to a haunted hayride accident in Mechanic Falls in October that killed a 17-year-old Messalonskee High School student and injured 22 others. Authorities have not yet released a report on what caused that accident.

Saviello said his bill also could prevent accidents like one that occurred during Bangor’s Fourth of July parade in 2013, when an antique fire truck ran over and killed a man who had fallen into the road. That accident was attributed to insufficient brake fluid.

The bill, which is scheduled to be referred to the Transportation Committee next week, would require brakes and lights to be inspected on all motor vehicles in Maine that transport members of the public and are not subject to other inspection requirements. Saviello’s bill was released this week and is expected to be among several debated by lawmakers in the next several months that would regulate hayrides.

While tractors and some other farm vehicles do not have to be inspected under current law, the 1979 Jeep CJ-5 that was towing the hayride in the fatal accident at Harvest Hill Farms was formally registered as a farm vehicle that also may travel on roads, which means it was already subject to inspection, said Department of Public Safety spokesman Stephen McCausland. He said he didn’t know what the Jeep’s inspection status was at the time of the crash.

Andrew Matulis, the Androscoggin County prosecutor assigned to the case, said last month the district attorney’s office planned to consult with outside experts to determine whether charges would be filed against the owners of Harvest Hill Farms. The office has withheld the investigators’ findings in the meantime.

Matulis, who had said he expected to make that decision by February, was out of the office and unavailable this week.

Police initially said they believed the Jeep’s brakes malfunctioned and caused the crash, and that’s the assumption on which the bill is based.

“I’m reacting to what I think happened,” said Saviello, who represents Belgrade, one of the towns in the Messalonskee School District. “It may be open to change.”

Investigators also looked into whether the Jeep was towing more weight than it could handle. The towing capacity for a Jeep of that era would be about 1,500 pounds, or about half its weight, depending on the size of the engine and any modifications.

Because that may have been the issue, Rep. Russell Black, another Republican from Wilton, believes the focus of the bill may have to be adjusted if the purpose is to prevent another accident like the one in Mechanic Falls.

“This bill brings forward an avenue for us to discuss it and look at it,” he said.

Black, the owner of Black Acres Farm in Wilton, has held haunted hayrides and gives wagon rides on Open Farm Day and Maine Maple Sunday. Black said he is not sure it’s necessary to require inspections for those types of small scale agro-tourism events, as long as the vehicles pulling the trailers are adequate. He includes in that category most farm tractors, which are exempt from inspection. Black sees the more commercialized hayrides run by Harvest Hill as more like a carnival ride than agro-tourism.

“We don’t want to make regulations so hard we can’t do it, but the general public needs to have some kind of awareness that these are safe rides they are going on,” he said.

Charles Peavey owns a venue in Corinna that’s similar to Harvest Hill, which is home to Pumpkin Land family park with a bounce house and barnyard. Peavey’s Thunder Road Farm has a corn maze, playground equipment and train rides, as well as hayrides.

“We’re positive to any new changes,” Peavey said about the proposed regulations. “Anything to make it safer for the public, we’re all in favor of.”

At the time of the accident in Mechanic Falls, the National Conference of State Legislatures said Rhode Island was the only state to require a permit to operate hayrides, while South Carolina and Texas law both mention the need for permits but had no administrative regulations regarding the requirements.

In at least 15 states, including Maine, hayride operators must display signs warning about the dangers of the rides and saying that the operators are not liable for injury or death.

Anne Teigen, a lawyer for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said Wednesday that no other states appear to have a law like the one being proposed in Maine.

“In fact, many states provide exceptions to inspection requirements for things like parades,” she said.

The bill doesn’t specify who would have to inspect the vehicles, but requires the vehicle’s owner to submit a signed affidavit to the Secretary of State saying that an inspection within the past year determined the lights and brakes were working properly. Saviello said farmers who do their own mechanic work could inspect the vehicles themselves.

Violating the regulation, either by signing a false affidavit or not submitting one at all, would carry a fine of up to $500.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said the proposal is an unusual method of inspecting a vehicle, but nothing his office can’t handle. He sees how it would make sense not to require a farm tractor that doesn’t drive on public roads to go for an outside inspection. But, he believes lawmakers will question whether that affidavit will mean anything if there’s another tragic accident like the one in Mechanic Falls.

“I think the question will be, does this answer the concerns raised by that crash?” he said.

Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: lesliebridgers

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