Mackinac Island horse-drawn carriage

Mike Pence motorcade gaffe: why are cars banned from Mackinac Island?

And why have they been prohibited for more than 120 years?

MAKE WHAT you will of Donald Trump’s tenure as President of the United States of America, but there’s no denying the current administration is no stranger to courting controversy.

Over the weekend, the vice president Mike Pence was embroiled in the latest finger-wagging moment after arriving with an eight-vehicle-strong motorcade at Mackinac Island in Michigan — a territory that has banned cars from its roads for more than 120 years.

Why has Mackinac Island banned cars?

Officially, cars are banned from Mackinac Island’s roads on safety grounds. As the island’s legal texts explicitly state, “the use and presence of motorised vehicles pose a significant and potentially detrimental effect on the health, safety and welfare of the general public”; going on to say “the overall safety of persons and property far exceeds the need for motor vehicles as a means of transit and use”.

Mackinac Island also prohibits self-propelled vehicles to protect the tourism industry on which it’s heavily reliant. The areas’s many historically significant buildings and monuments have contributed to the US government recognising the entire island as a National Historic Landmark. Mackinac Island’s car ban law points requires the “unique use and reliance on horse-drawn conveyance”.

The ban even extends to the M185 highway that encircles the island. This, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation, gives the major road the distinction of being the only highway in the entire United States of America that isn’t open to cars.

When were cars first banned from Mackinac Island?

Mackinac Island’s automotive embargo is almost as old as the car industry itself, dating all the way back to 1898. The island’s council declared “the running of horseless carriages be prohibited within the limits of the village of Mackinac”, in response to concerns from carriage drivers who were worried the then-newfangled contraptions would scare their horses.

circa 1955: Horse drawn carts and bicyles passing along the main street of Mackinac Island, Michigan where the use of cars is prohibited. (Photo by Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images)

In 1901, the ban was expanded to include all of the land in Mackinac Island State Park, which covers over 80% of the 3.8 square mile territory. For the most part since then, visitors and residents have had to get around the island using bicycles or horses, or make their journey on foot.

Are there any exceptions to the car ban?

While self-propelled vehicles have been outlawed from the island’s roads for well over a century, there have been a handful of exceptions to the rule over the last 121 years. For example, a steam-powered car from 1901 was permitted on the island’s roads to mark the centenary of the ban in 1998.

A handful of vehicle types are also exempted from the ban on self-propelled vehicles. Disabled people are allowed to use motorised wheelchairs and electrically-assisted bicycles if they have the relevant permits and doctors’ notes on them, and Mackinac Island allows snowmobiles on the public roads during the winter. Golf buggies are given the green light too, as long as they’re only used on the golf course and are only used by people “engaged in the actual playing of golf”.

While members of the public are banned from driving and owning cars in Mackinac Island, public safety services such as fire brigades and police departments are permitted to use motor vehicles — meaning it’s highly unlikely you’ll see the island’s law enforcement officers arrive at the scene of a crime on horseback.

Because Mackinac Island legislation allows people working for local, county, state and federal agencies to use motor vehicles on the isle, it also means Mike Pence’s motorcade may have been a faux pas but by being there it technically wasn’t breaking the law.