Two horse carriage accidents last month have led company managers to act quickly to make sure employees know standard procedures to prevent another incident. That’s no surprise — the safety of the horses, the carriages, and, most importantly, their passengers is critical to keeping business going. But the events raise questions about the city’s role in cataloging and monitoring these rare accidents.

Tourism companies are required to report property damage or injury to the police, which files a standard incident report. But ensuring the accident information makes it to the city’s tourism department, tasked with overseeing the industry, hinges solely on what could best be described as a courtesy call from officers.

When six tourists were injured in a Jan. 9 accident, word came to the department quickly. But weeks languished before they heard word of a Jan. 19 accident involving an injured handler and damage to an Anson Street restaurant.

“The lines of communication are there,” says Tourism Director Vanessa Turner Maybank. “They just may need to be improved upon.”

That could include reinforcing the general understanding of sharing information or by stating clearly in the city code that incidents should be reported to both the police and the tourism department, says Assistant Corporation Counsel Janie Borden. The city already has duel-notification requirements for taxicab drivers, who must notify the police immediately, as well as the city’s taxi inspector within 24 hours.

There’s also some question about the city’s role following an accident. The city passed a detailed horse carriage ordinance in 2007 focused heavily on the health and safety of the horses, but it does not address accidents. Unlike Charleston, Savannah’s ordinance requires that a carriage involved in an accident be inspected by the city before it heads back on the street.

Cathy Forrester, chair of Charleston’s volunteer Tourism Commission, guided the carriage ordinance through three years of debate until its approval last spring. The city could have sat on those agreed-upon recommendations while every detail was hammered out, Forrester says, but thought it best to codify what could get done (semi-annual vet visits and random animal control monitoring). Consistent notification is one avenue they could look to improve.

“We’re a work in progress in some ways,” Forrester says of the ordinance. “We’re working the kinks out of this. We realized that when we did it.”

As for the industry, they don’t see anything wrong with the city strengthening lines of communication internally, but they’re always weary of more bureaucracy.

“There’s that old joke,” says Palmetto Carriage Co. owner Tom Doyle. “It goes, ‘I’m from the city, and I’m here to help.'”

Doing It For Themselves

Just as the city’s ordinance reinforced what individual carriage owners were doing to take care of horses in the heat, carriage operators are already trying to learn from these mistakes without specific oversight.

Though involved in both accidents last month, Old South Carriage Co. has been doing tours daily in Charleston for decades with a focus on safety, says General Manager Billy Taylor. Fresh horses are paired with only the most experienced tour guides, while seasoned horses are left for new hires. Neither horses nor tour guides new to the business are thrown onto the street green — both animal and employee get weeks of training to make sure they’ve got what it takes before the first passenger buys a ticket, Taylor says.

In the accident on Jan. 9, eight-year-old Dean, one of the newer horses, had been fastened securely to his bridle before the shift. While stopping during a tour on the Battery, the horse shook his head violently and the bridle strap on the top of his head slipped over the ears and down his face, startling the horse.

“Some horses just stand there, but if its afraid, the horse makes a decision of fight or flight,” Taylor says.

When Dean took flight, he dragged the carriage along with him until it hit a curb, shattering one of the wheels. Three passengers were thrown off as the carriage fell to its side.

Since then, the carriage was sent to the company mechanic for a full work-over and Dean, whose strap has since been adjusted to account for the horse’s high crown and soft ears, will be traded back to the farm he came from when the company buys more horses this spring.

Ten days later, another horse, Big Al, was being detached from his carriage in the compnay’s Anson Street barn. When handlers failed to fully unhook the carriage, it rubbed against the horse’s hind leg, causing him to spook. Big Al ran out of the barn, knocking employee Lisa Carson to the ground. Police reports claim she was injured when part of the carriage struck her in the head, but Taylor says the carriage didn’t hit Carson. He also says the carriage was instead damaged when Big Al dragged it around the corner and hit the side of Ansons Restaurant, knocking a window out. Doctors told the employee to take a few days off from work.

After both incidents, management put each employee back through physical training to remind staff members of safety procedures; a checklist was also given to employees to review and sign.

Tom Doyle notes these accidents are an “oddity.” News reports suggest that there were no accidents in 2007 and about 14 injuries over the last decade. You’d also have to go back more than 20 years for the only known fatality. But the city’s lack of monitoring would make it hard for anyone to state that as a fact.

The South Battery incident was well publicized in the media, and vet records for Dean serve as easy reminders. But the Anson Street accident has gone unreported in the media and doesn’t appear in Big Al’s history file because the animal wasn’t checked out by a vet in relation to the incident. The sole mention of the accident is in a police report filed under “injured party.”

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