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Children play on Belle Isle Beach on Memorial Day, Monday, May 31 hours before a fatal crash occurred there. (BridgeDetroit Photo by Malachi Barrett)

A hit-and-run crash on Belle Isle Beach that killed a young girl and injured her sister has sparked conversations about whether vehicles can safely exist on the state-run island park.

The girls, who had recently immigrated from Yemen, were playing in the sand an hour before sunset on Memorial Day when police say a wild driver veered off the roadway and onto the beach, striking the children before escaping the island. He later was apprehended by police on Detroit’s west side. 

Detroiters have long raised fears over speeding, distracted driving and crashes around the island and say the Monday incident exposes known flaws in traffic control measures there. State officials meanwhile countered there are multiple efforts underway to improve mobility and safety on the island long known as a cruising destination.

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Matt Hollerbach, a Detroit activist and non-motorized safety advocate, told BridgeDetroit he was feet away as the vehicle barreled across a multi-use path, through a sign and into the sand. 

Hollerbach said he witnessed the car speed up when it hit the beach, crashing into a pop up tent and into a crowd. He estimated more than 100 people were on the half-mile swimming beach and Hollerbach saw the two girls being carried away after they were launched into the air and could immediately tell one was severely injured.

“There was blood coming out of every opening on her face,” Hollerbach said.

Hollerbach said the curve at Riverbank Drive where the crash occurred runs dangerously tight to the beach and he’s seen cars accidentally pop over the curb there multiple times in the past. 

“There’s no speed bumps anywhere on the island. At some places it’s four lanes of completely unrestricted smooth pavement; of course you’re gonna have people speeding,” he said. “It’s comically poorly designed. Obviously a person like me wants to see cars banned from that island.”

Michigan State Police said additional details about the crash are not being released at this time because the incident remains under investigation. 

State data shows 105 vehicle crashes involving 254 people happened on Belle Isle from 2015 to 2020. Of those, 25 resulted in injuries and 15 were recorded as hit-and-run crashes. Publicly available police reports show many of the crashes are attributed to speeding, improper lane changes, distracted drivers and rear-end collisions when cars slow down to let pedestrians or bikes cross the island’s roadways.

Source: Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning

“While this tragic event of a death happening may be rare, little accidents here and there on Belle Isle are not,” said Paul Jones III, a native Detroiter and urban planner who previously worked in the mayor’s office and sits on the board of Transportation Riders United. “I see a lot of bikes just barely getting missed by cars, or cars going upward of 55 miles per hour.”

Five crashes were recorded in the same area as the Memorial Day crash along a curve on Riverbank Drive running west from the Detroit Yacht Club to the Belle Isle Beach House. This includes a May 2019 incident where the owner of a Porsche Macan lost control of his vehicle shortly after midnight, struck a pole and ran off the road on the beach side. A police report attributes the crash to speeding.

Two deaths involving cars occured on the island since 2015. In December, a man died after crashing his car into a statue situated at the center of a four-way intersection in the heart of Belle Isle. Police said he was seen speeding with his headlights off before striking the statue. In 2018, a bicyclist who frequented the island’s unofficial “Hipster Beach” was killed crossing the MacArthur Bridge after dark when he was struck head-on by a black Dodge Caliber. 

“Anyone that goes on Belle Isle often, anyone that pays attention to how people and pedestrians interact in the park, are aware that it was a matter of when – not a matter of if – a pedestrian death on the island would happen,” said Ian Solomon, a Detroiter and frequent user of the park. “In Detroit, we have a problem here when it comes to prioritizing cars over pedestrians.”

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which took control of the 982-acre island in 2013, is considering ways to improve safety on Belle Isle. A free shuttle service is set to launch on June 24 and the DNR is commissioning a study to look at visitor and vehicle capacity, ways to better disperse vehicles throughout the park and improve wayfinding signage, traffic flow directions and nonmotorized transportation options.

Scott Pratt, chief of southern field operations for the DNR, said banning cars from the island isn’t on the table. Pratt said the DNR doesn’t want to impede on the island’s character as a cruising destination. He also said the DNR hasn’t heard residents ask for cars to be excluded. 

“There’s no way we’re going to say ‘no cars on the island,’” Pratt said. “That was never our goal … We just want to make sure that people are navigating around the island safely by offering bike paths off the main road, embarking on the mobility study and using a shuttle service.”

He said the DNR is installing a rope barrier along the roadway to prevent cars from parking on grassy areas near the beach. Pratt said the Memorial Day crash is being considered while the DNR evaluates safety improvements, but Pratt also called the incident a “total fluke.”

“My only hope was this was just a one-time incident. We don’t think that one incident is going to create a major change in what we’re moving forward with,” he added. “Will we take that into consideration? Yes, definitely. We always want to make sure safety concerns are addressed.”

Hollerbach said it’s “absurd” to suggest there hasn’t been vocal advocacy around cars being incompatible with the island, given the groups that have consistently opposed hosting the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix on Belle Isle. This is the last year the annual race will be held there.

The fatal Memorial Day crash happened days before the island will be closed to traffic for the Grand Prix. Belle Isle is closed to visitors and parking is not available due to the event from Friday through Sunday. The crash also coincided with the start of a statewide policy conference on Mackinac Island, where cars are prohibited.

David Gifford, a non-motorized transportation advocate and founder of Transit Guide Detroit, said the Grand Prix proves its possible to get attendees on the island through other means. Free shuttle services run between downtown locations and the island for the event. 

City buses stop on Belle Isle every hour from 8:30 a.m. to 8:12 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m to 6:40 p.m. on weekends. Gifford said additional and more frequent stops at other locations on the island could provide less reasons for residents to drive there. He’d also like to see a dedicated lane for buses that cyclists could also use. 

“We don’t have to reinvent things by starting a new service,” Gifford said. “There could just be integration of what’s currently used and make it more frequent, especially on weekends when more visitors are there.”

​​Until a bridge was built in the 1890s, visitors used ferry boats to reach the island. DNR officials said they’re looking at the possibility of bringing back water boats as a means of conveyance.

Detroit Transit History provides a historic record of bus services on Belle Isle. During its heyday, the Belle Isle bus line operated under 30-minute stops seven days a week  from 6:30 a.m. until midnight. Service hours were reduced when DDOT took over operations in 1974.

In 1988, the city’s Department of Transportation bus system attempted to further reduce service to a seasonal schedule between April 1 and the Labor Day holiday. After protests from senior citizens before the Detroit City Council, full-year service was restored within four days. A year later, Belle Isle became a branch extension of DDOT’s Conant bus line, as it remains today. 

Jones said Belle Isle is among the worst examples of a large urban park designed for cars. He said he would like to see cars gradually phased out with more options for buses and bikes to get there. 

“It’s pretty common knowledge that one-way streets are more dangerous for pedestrians. Drivers go faster,” he said. “We’ve sacrificed the quality of the park for this idea of being accessible for people who want to drive and park there.”

Jones said he doesn’t see a way to mitigate the traffic problems without changing the infrastructure.

“Whether cars are on the island or not, it just has to be recognized that the way that the island is currently designed is always going to encourage this type of behavior,” he said.

Solomon agreed that the DNR should reduce the number of lanes, install speed humps and take other measures to protect beach-goers like placing concrete barriers along Riverbank Drive. 

“The conversation of getting the cars off the island for good is a conversation that needs to be had, but I will also say that I know culturally this is the Motor City and I know people love that whole Belle Isle cruising idea,” said Solomon, founder of Amplify Detroit, a community group focused on increasing awareness and access to outdoor resources for Black Detroiters. “At the very least, the roadways have to be completely redone.” 

As Solomon describes it, the goal is to “get Black folk out in Michigan’s wilderness.” Making people feel safe is a major hurdle, he said.

“We’re at a point where it’s not just physical safety, but cultural safety (people are concerned about),” Solomon said. “There’s more of a policing presence (since the state took over). I do think there needs to be this broader conversation around how we make people feel safe and affirmed on Belle Isle while maintaining the improvements that are happening.”

Hollerbach noted that the heightened police presence on the island for Memorial Day didn’t do much to prevent Monday’s incident.  

“There were plenty of police everywhere; that place was crawling with Michigan State Police and DNR police that day,” Hollerbach said. “That didn’t do anything to calm traffic. That didn’t do anything to prevent the curb jump or prevent the beach run.”

Belle Isle visits increased during the pandemic, jumping from 4 million in 2019 to 5.2 million in 2021. State parks officials anticipate this year will be among the busiest summers since the island became a state park in 2014.

Pratt said an estimate on park attendance over Memorial Day weekend was not available. Two traffic alerts were sent through the Belle Isle text alert system on Monday. The island was closed around 1:50 p.m. due to capacity issues and briefly reopened before being closed again for the rest of the evening. An alert was not issued when the crash occurred.

Jones said Belle Isle is indicative of larger transportation problems in Detroit. The city has consistently ranked among the most dangerous places for pedestrians in the country.

“I can’t ignore the demographics; this is a Black city and Belle Isle is the Blackest outdoor recreational opportunity in the state,” Jones said. “If this was a different place, and the demographics looked a little different, we would be having a different conversation.”

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2 Comments

  1. Many people would not be able to come to the island if cars were prohibited . So sad that many of the elderly or people with physical limitations would miss out. There must be other options to implement.

  2. As a Detroit resident who doesn’t own a motor vehicle, the sense of danger I feel by motor vehicles while trying to get to the island has prevented me from going to the island in several years.

    I want to visit the island, I loved going, but now won’t because it’s not worth risking life and limb. Banning cars several times a year during the season is a genius idea to attract safe and active transport. We don’t need unrestricted access for automobiles. In fact, unrestricted has proven to be deadly.

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