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Mackinac Island suddenly has a traffic problem

Mackinac Island — On an island where most motorized vehicles are banned, police are dealing with a spike in traffic injuries and other road-related headaches.

Mackinac Island Police Chief Douglas Topolski said he's addressing multiple traffic issues, including a speed limit that "makes no sense" and a recent wave of electric bicycles.

E-bikes are prohibited by city ordinance, although Topolski said he suspects many of the e-bicyclists are abusing a federal loophole that allows people with disabilities to use the vehicles on the island.

"We've run into a problem because we're getting a proliferation of these e-bikes on the island, and either they're being used here illegally or else Mackinac Island has the highest number of people with disabilities per capita in the state," the chief said.

E-bikes zigzagging through pedestrian- and horse-congested streets during the busy tourist season are dangerous, said Topolski. He said he plans to start issuing more tickets for e-bike violations.

The concern over e-bikes rekindles a perennial debate about which vehicles should be allowed on the island, where most motor vehicles have been prohibited since 1898.

Some residents and business owners complain the vehicles are dangerous and taint the island's rustic ambiance. E-bikes are welcomed or tolerated by others who say they're not a problem if handled safely.

Topolski said the recent e-bike inundation and other concerns have presented the same traffic-related challenges that vex other communities.

"Working on Mackinac Island, I'm seeing the same issues I saw when I spent 10 years as a Dearborn police traffic safety officer," said Topolski, a 33-year police veteran who took over as the island's police chief in 2020.

"Whether it's with motor vehicles or pedestrians when you get people going at diverse speeds, you're going to have traffic conflicts," Topolski said.

Injuries rose last year

State law doesn't require reporting crashes involving non-motorized vehicles, but the number of injuries treated at the Mackinac Island Health Center increased sharply in 2021, said Mike Grisdale, spokesman for the Mackinac Straits Health System.

"Usually, they'd get about 100 injuries each year involving bicycles, but last year they had 135 injuries," he said. "A lot of those cases are classified as head trauma because people don't wear helmets."

Only one of last year's injuries treated at the health center involved an e-bike, Grisdale said.

"But (health center staff) anticipate there will be an increase in e-bike injuries because the number of people using them has gone up substantially," he said.

Grisdale said inexperienced bicyclists make up many of the injuries.

"Many times, it’s the visitors who are renting regular bicycles and then are reckless on the hills," he said. "The island has a couple of steep hills, and people who haven't ridden in a while don't know how to stop, so they hit a horse, hit people or hit a pole.

"If people would slow down and wear a helmet that would help a great deal."

The speed limit on the highway that encircles the island, M-185, is 25 mph, although on the city's streets it's 20 mph. Topolski said he plans to seek legislative approval to lower the 20 mph speed limit and the ability to enforce violations on those streets. 

"That speed limit is unenforceable because Michigan law says you can't post speed limits in a municipality lower than 25 mph, with very few exceptions such as a public park or school zone during school hours," he said. 

Michigan law requires speed limits to be established by counting the number of driveways and cross streets — called "access points" — in a half-mile area; or by conducting a traffic study and setting the limit by the 85th percentile of free-flowing traffic, meaning the speed at which 85% of drivers are traveling during the study.

"I did a speed study on Main Street, and the 85th percentile in the summer is between 10-15 mph," Topolski said. "That's what the speed limit should be here. It would have to be Mackinac-specific legislation to make it lower than 25 mph."

'No viable solutions'

Because state law prevents his officers from writing speeding tickets to bicyclists with the current speed limit, Topolski said they issue citations for careless operation of a bicycle or "Violation of the Basic Speed Limit," which means a speed unsafe for road conditions, regardless of the posted limit.

Topolski said his officers will also be handing out more citations for e-bike violations. 

"We've been using discretion, but we're going to start writing tickets because these e-bikes really have the potential to be dangerous when you have thousands of people downtown during the summer," the chief said.

Violations can result in a $110 civil infraction citation along with impounding the bike.

"We don't want to ruin people's vacations by writing tickets, but we'll write them for the more egregious offenses," Topolski said. 

Mackinac Island City Councilman Tom Corrigan said "there are no viable solutions to this."

"People say the police should crack down, but we don't have a big-enough police force for that," said Corrigan of the department that employs six year-round officers and normally hires three or four additional cops during the summer.

With police departments statewide scrambling to fill vacant positions, Topolski said he's only hired two seasonal officers, although they're supplemented by two interns and two Michigan State Police troopers.

Corrigan said the traffic problems aren't caused by most e-bicyclists. 

"For 90% of the people riding them, it's not a problem," he said.

Mackinac Island Mayor Margaret Doud said electric bicycles create multiple problems.

"E-bikes with accelerators can scare horses, and as a horse-drawn community, we want to make sure we do everything we can to keep guests and animals safe," the mayor said in an email.

"In addition, it is important for us to maintain our culture here and we do not feel certain e-bikes have a place on the island," Doud said. "If our guests have mobility disabilities, we have accessible accommodations for them.”

Rules of the road, or hill

E-bikes are not defined as motor vehicles under Michigan's Motor Vehicle Code. But the code also says: “an individual shall not operate an electric bicycle within a city that prohibits the use of nonemergency motor vehicles."

Mackinac Island officials use that provision of the state code to enforce its e-bike ban, although as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with mobility disabilities may use Class 1 electric bicycles.

According to an online notice police officials posted last year: "The Class 1 electric bicycle is equipped with an electric motor of not more than 750 watts, is limited to a top speed of 20 mph, and the electric motor must only engage when the rider is pedaling."

Class 2 bikes allow the user to coast at up to 20 mph without pedaling. Per a city ordinance, people with disabilities may use Class 2 e-bikes if the throttles are disabled.

"If you are able to apply a throttle to engage the motor, that E-Bike is not allowed on the island," the police notice said.

Topolski said he suspects people without disabilities are bringing e-bikes onto the island, although he said the infraction is impossible to enforce.

"We can't require people to prove that they have a mobility disability," the chief said. "According to the ADA guidelines, we can ask for credible assurance, and it states right in the guidelines that a person's word can be the assurance. So, we have to take their word for it."

'Dangerous horseless carriages'

Controversies have ignited for more than a century over which vehicles should be allowed on Mackinac Island.

The motor vehicle ban was imposed on July 6, 1898, after residents signed a petition calling for authorities to prohibit the recently invented "dangerous horseless carriages" because they were scaring horses.

The 8-mile stretch of M-185, which circles the outer rim of Mackinac Island, is the only state highway in the United States that doesn't allow motor vehicles.

The Mackinac Island State Park Commission in 1907 cited motor bicycles as an illegal mode of transportation and included them in the vehicle ban. 

In 1937, officials voted to allow a fire truck onto the island. Since then, motorized emergency vehicles have been permitted. Mackinac Island's only recorded motor traffic crash involved emergency vehicles when in 2005 an ambulance clipped the door of a fire truck.

Five years after President George H.W. Bush in 1990 signed the Americans With Disabilities Act into law, Mackinac Island officials altered the city's vehicle ordinance to allow electric wheelchairs and three-wheeled scooters.

When resident Donald Bertrand, who had multiple sclerosis, sued the city in 2002 to be allowed to use an electric tricycle, city officials argued the 1995 ordinance revision had brought them in compliance with the ADA.

The Michigan Court of Appeals disagreed, unanimously ruling in 2003 that island authorities had violated the ADA by refusing to accommodate Bertrand.

Steve Christie also sued the city in 2002 after he was ticketed three times for driving his e-bike. The former owner of Mackinac Island Florists said he needed the assistance to make flower deliveries because he had a bad knee following a vehicle crash in college.

"They allowed those little disability scooters, but they're impossible to get around on like an e-bike," said Christie, 73, who said he dropped his lawsuit after the decision in Bertrand's case.

"I love the island, but a lot of the people who were born and raised there have an attitude," said Christie, who moved to Tennessee in 2003. "Horses are king there; they don't like any other kind of transportation. They think they're separate from the United States."

'A different vibe'

About a million people visit Mackinac Island annually. The year-round population is less than 500, although thousands of seasonal employees reside on the island during the summer.

Urvana Morse, owner of Urvana's on Mackinac Island, a gift shop and artist's space, said the electronic bikes started becoming a problem last year.

"Some people use them who need them because of a disability, but I think a lot more people are using them because it makes hauling stuff easier, and they can go quite fast," she said. 

Corrigan, the councilman who'll be 77 next week, said he has trouble walking after contracting polio as a child and uses an e-bike.

"I have cousins on the back of the island and friends in the middle, and when I visit them I use the e-bike because I'm either fighting the wind or gravity," he said. "So I know where people are coming from on this.

"For a lot of the older people on the island, being able to go up and down the hills on an e-bike is great. If there's nobody on the road, that's one thing. But if you're whipping through downtown during the summer, that's another."

Corrigan said he'd like to see the speed limit lowered to 10 mph.

"That would make the most sense with the mix of bikes and pedestrians," he said.

Asked if his officers have ever had to cite horseriders for exceeding the posted speed limits, Topolski said: "It's never come up with horses going too fast. Every once in a while a horse will take off, but you can't write the horse a ticket."

Horses and bicyclists sometimes don't mix, Topolski said.

"People assume the horses know what the bike is doing," he said. "With the (horse-drawn) wagons, it's like a big semi — it's not easy to turn. So sometimes we'll have bikes crash into the carts. Nine times out of 10, the bicyclist is at fault; they need to yield to the horses."

Morse said the influx of e-bikes is altering the island's character.

"I've been here since the 1990s, and a lot of things change — you can't halt change," Morse said. "But the amount of e-bikes that started last year ... I've never seen so many.

"It's a different vibe for sure. It's not the charming old stuff."

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN