“It’s all about the tourists dollars”

Mercury Column – AUG2021

Op-Ed by Joe Elmore on Citizens Carriage Safety Ordinance

A Tiny Victory for Charleston’s Carriage Horses

A year ago, a local nonprofit advocacy organization, Charleston Carriage Horse Advocates (CCHA), introduced a common sense safety measure to City Council, which would enhance the safety of citizens, both adults and children, tourists, carriage industry employees and carriage horses.  Nothing in the measure would adversely impact the profits generated from this tourist attraction.

Why enhanced safety measures?

Since 2016, CCHA states that they are aware of 120 documented safety related incidents in Charleston related to extraordinarily large carriages or wagons.  This is an alarming statistic, especially since yet another horse was killed last year and this tourist attraction has resulted in countless injuries to both humans and animals, including the death of both.  With the population density continually increasing in the downtown area along with accelerating construction, which is a contributing factor to many carriage incidents since equines are so easily spooked, significant precautions should be taken, as they have been in other cities, to increase the safety of this tourist enterprise.

However, without the advocacy of organizations such as Charleston Carriage Horse Advocates, Charleston Animal Society and others, progress on this issue would be stagnant.  For the record, neither CCHA nor the Animal Society has called for a ban on this enterprise, only for significant reform guided by an independent study.  Note: an increasing number of cities in both the United States and overseas have banned this enterprise altogether.

Six years ago, following a horrific incident where a carriage horse lie helpless on the street for nearly 3 hours in July, the Animal Society requested the City to provide an independent review of the incident for the purpose of preventing them from occurring in the future.  A review, albeit not independent, was conducted with recommendations – that was in 2015.  Most of the common sense recommendations, such as equine first responder training and equine triage kits,  structured training of carriage drivers and horses, driver competency examinations, equipment safety checklists, and Tourism Commission review of health care and management requirements to ensure up-to-date practices consistent with national standards were not incorporated in the ordinance and fell by the wayside.  Yet, incident upon incident continued to occur.

Occasionally, when safety measures were addressed by a member of the Tourism Commission, those members were admonished by the Tourism Director, carriage industry and others.  Yet, both people, including children, and horses continued to suffer injury, to the degree that a horse last year was put down.

While Charleston Animal Society, which was founded nearly 150 years ago to prevent cruelty to animals, specifically addressing the plight of working animals, has recognized Charleston’s carriage enterprise as the harshest working conditions of this type for equines in the country, the Charleston Carriage Horse Advocates has consistently brought pressure on the City and industry to reform, not ban, this tourist attraction.

Hence, in trying to work with the City and industry, CCHA, at its own cost, researched safety measures and submitted a common sense safety ordinance to City Council a year ago.

City Council referred the matter to Tourism Commission.  The spirit of what was a citizen-led, grassroots effort to provide for a safer environment downtown was the expectation, and commitment by some elected officials, for a process that would provide for real, sustained dialogue, which is why a tourism commission exists.  Instead, the process was quickly slanted against the residents and citizens initiating this democratic right – citizen advocacy which is supposed to be a basis for our democratic ideals and system of government.

CCHA was not allowed to make a full presentation to the Tourism Commission and relegated to public comment opportunities of 2, sometimes, 3 minutes each in various committees.

CCHA’s proposal focused on drivers, carriages, children and transparency and included common sense measures.

Is there any reason why we shouldn’t screen drivers for drugs and alcohol like any commercial vehicle operator entrusted with the safety of more than a dozen people? Is there any reason why we shouldn’t have engineers inspect carriages once a year to ensure they’re safe? Is it really a good idea to have only one driver responsible for managing an animal, maneuvering streets, avoiding bystanders, overseeing safety protocols, and giving a tour when we already prohibit distracted driving in motor vehicles? The answers are fairly obvious to anyone outside the industry or those representing a city that benefits financially from the enterprise.

Sadly, what will go before City Council on August 17th, a year later, is a tiny victory for the working horses.  Had it not been for CCHA, what was recommended 6 years ago, prompted by Charleston Animal Society, would still be buried away in the past.

A tiny victory was achieved by the safety advocates, but a victory no less, with much more work to be done to realize meaningful reform.

The fact remains that every day that goes by without doing what we can as a city to improve safety carries the risk of serious injuries to citizens, employees, visitors, and animals.

It’s incumbent upon our city leaders to address risks proactively—rather than taking a reactionary posture.

It is not too late for City Council to include safety measures for children, safety inspections of carriages by engineers, random drug and alcohol screening and automatically following an incident and requiring two drivers per animal-drawn vehicle ensuring one has their eyes on the road ahead, while the other is providing the tour.

We implore City Council to do the right thing.