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One carriage flip away from a tragedy – Why?
Lee Walton

The City of Charleston and thirteen very fortunate tourists luckily averted a much more serious outcome following the wreck of a runaway carriage on the afternoon of January 9th. As reported in the Palter & Chatter on January 10th, “… at least six of the thirteen people aboard were injured when the carriage tipped over while turning onto Meeting Street.”

The catalyst for this serious accident had its genesis in dangerous, unregulated design modifications to local carriages, which are made to nearly double their intended carrying capacity. A quick check of many larger horse drawn carriages operating in the Charleston Historic District clearly reveals that wide “bench seating” has been added to extend seating far beyond the underlying carriage bodyworks and significantly increase the carrying capacity above that intended by the carriage manufacturer or as allowed in many other historic cities.

Why are these dangerous, potentially fatal, design modifications tolerated by the City and allowed to occur without adequate attention to life safety standards applicable to vehicles carrying passengers for hire? As usual, in The Republic of Charleston, the answer can be attributed to nothing more than greed. Given constant criticism and complaints of carriage induced street congestion, current City Code restricts the total number of carriages allowed to operate within the peninsula during specified times. Consequently, most carriage companies have found convenient, albeit potentially fatal, ways to still significantly increase their revenues, given the limited number of carriages, operating hours, medallions and tour zones allowable by current codes.

A cursory review of similar codes and ordinances regulating carriage tours in other historic cities reveals one common, albeit critical, regulatory constraint missing in the Charleston Code, a maximum carriage passenger capacity limitation. Boston allows a maximum capacity of only four (4) passengers per carriage. Philadelphia allows a maximum of six (6) passengers. New Orleans allows a maximum of eight (8), and Savannah allows a maximum of ten (10). Other cities including Cleveland, Nashville and Chicago limit carriage carrying capacity to the carriage manufacturer’s certified carrying capacity. National carriage design guidelines and standards published by Carriage Operators of North America state that “ No horse drawn carriage should carry more passengers than it is designed to carry.”

Charleston’s carriage operators are allowed, with a City Administration “wink and nod” at worst, or a conveniently “turned back” at best, to cram as many tourist as possible onto a twelve feet long by six feet wide carriage bed. The Charleston Code regulating carriage design (Section 29-207) stipulates that the size of carriages is restricted to “…twelve (12) feet in length or six (6) feet in width … measured from end to end, excluding the steps and shafts; and, from axle tip to axle tip. No part of the carriage may be over six (6) feet in width…” Notice the convenient legal land mines and potential loopholes created by the use of the word “or” in lieu of “and” in the length and width limitations and the use of the less legally restrictive “may” in lieu of “shall” in the maximum width limitation. One must wonder if such wording was intentionally chosen to allow wiggle-room in the carriage operator’s favor. An earlier version of Code Section 29-207 contained more restrictive design requirements for “…authentically styled passenger carriages, similar to Surreys, Rockaways or examples in illustrations No. 1 through 40 in American Carriages, Sleighs, Sulkies and Carts…” This more restrictive design standard has since been conveniently deleted to allow the extended bench seating never seen on “…authentically styled passenger carriages…”

Many of Charleston’s larger carriages have been modified or locally constructed to physically carry as many as sixteen (16) passengers. (Pity the poor horses!) This four bench seat by four abreast seating configuration would allow only eighteen (18) inches per width of passenger seat, a width approximately four (4) inches narrower than the seat width on the average sardines-in-a-can seating provided for coach class airlines passengers.

Why are Charleston’s carriage operators allowed to either design and construct their own large carriages or drastically modify manufactured carriages by the addition of high, wide bench seats extending far beyond the vehicle’s bodyworks and sideboards? These modifications not only place passengers above and outside of the intended protective envelope of the carriage body, but also alter and raise the center-of-gravity and severely stress the undersized bodyworks, axles, springs, wheel hubs, wooden spokes, rims and braking systems well beyond their intended design loadings. Properly designed, constructed and operated passenger carriages should provide structural sideboards that are intended to enclose passengers within the structural shell of the vehicle; legs and arms should not be allowed to dangle freely outside the bodywork.

Returning again to the January 10th Palter & Chatter article jointly authored by David Slade and Kyle Stock, it is interesting to note the apparent conflict in reasons stated for the carriage wreck the previous day. The City Police Report indicated the cause as “…the runaway carriage hit a curb while turning onto Meeting Street sending the carriage several feet into the air. The carriage landed on its right rear wheel, which shattered, and then overturned…” An eyewitness was quoted as offering a materially different account of the accident - “The right wheel bent and all the passengers fell out of the cart.” The accompanying photograph clearly indicates the shattered right wheel resting under the still upright carriage with an undamaged, intact surrey top – the carriage appears not to have overturned, but only dropped down onto its right rear axle hub after the wheel was overstressed and shattered during the turn. This photograph also clearly indicates the high, wide bench seat modifications extending well beyond the sides of the carriage bodyworks. In all probability, the right rear wheel on this carriage failed because it wasn’t intended to withstand nearly twice the lateral loading it was subjected to as this carriage attempted to turn sharply at runaway speed; the same centrifugal force that caused the wheel to shatter then dumped the passengers onto the pavement.

The next time you get caught behind a large, fully loaded carriage, notice the wide, high bench seats added over the top of the carriage bodyworks in which passengers were intended to safely sit. Then observe the dangling arms, legs and feet extending out beyond the rear wheels. Proper enforcement of national carriage design and operation standards would place passengers completely within the protective body shell, not perched high above it with body parts extending well into harms way.

Will it take another “perfect storm” equivalent of a fatal carriage accident for Charleston’s Administration to demand world-class regulations to protect unsuspecting tourist riding in the finest, Class -1 carriage fleet in the nation? Let’s hope not. But then again, that’s government as usual in The Republic of Charleston.

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