Detroit is synonymous with the U.S. auto industry—and the state of Michigan as a whole owes a great deal of its modern culture and infrastructure to the automakers who call the state home. But as much as Michiganders are justly proud of the long history of automotive innovation and development in their state, driving in the Wolverine State presents certain unique challenges. Here’s what you need to know about getting behind the wheel in the state that brought us everything from the V8 engine to Mustang Sally.
Car Culture in Michigan
Americans from all over the country love their cars, but the passion that Michiganders feel for their cars is unrivaled. For instance, folks in Michigan are fiercely loyal to the local automakers. According to Ohio native James Doherty, who has lived in the Detroit area for fifteen years, “Michigan is the only place I’ve been where people will actually confront you for not driving an American car.”
This devotion makes perfect sense. Not only is the history of Michigan deeply intertwined with the history of the American automobile industry, but according to David Littman of dbusiness, as of 2015, “Michigan’s core motor vehicle industry represents 46.4 percent of Michigan’s entire manufacturing sector”—and this figure does not include any of the ancillary industries that are linked to the automobile industry.
Michiganders also love to celebrate their state’s place in American car culture. In 2017, the annual North American International Autos Show (also known as the Detroit Auto Show) attracted over 800,000 attendees and also brought $450 million in revenue to Motor City. This event was the economic equivalent of Detroit hosting two Super Bowls in one year and is a major reason why Michigan in general and Detroit in particular remain the epicenter of car culture in America.
Even non-car buffs in Michigan enjoy seeing automotive history on display. Jennifer Book Haselswerdt, a teacher and dramaturge who lived in Ann Arbor from 2014 to 2016, found that her family loved going to the Henry Ford Museum over and over: “Getting to learn about the history of transportation, and specifically the car industry, was one of our family’s favorite outings.” Historical car culture also came to Haselswerdt each year in the form of Ann Arbor’s annual vintage car festival: “Main Street is shut down, and collectors park their vintage cars for blocks to display.”
For folks living in Michigan, cars are much more than just transportation—they are a way of life that encompasses everything from the local economy to entertainment to education.
Michiganders spend more time behind the wheel than the average American. According to the Federal Highway Administration, the average American driver logged 13,476 miles in 2014, the most recent year for which data are available. In Michigan, however, the average driver put 14,121 miles on their car in 2014.
The additional mileage means higher expenses for car owners, since the more you drive, the more you spend on both regular maintenance (e.g., oil changes and new tires) and non-regular maintenance (e.g., brake pad, spark plug, and transmission fluid replacements). Financial blog My Money Design calculates that the cost of such maintenance is approximately $0.26/mile. This means that Michiganders who drive 14,121 miles per year can expect to pay about $3,671 per year in maintenance costs.
However, the cost to maintain a car in Michigan may be even more expensive. Thanks to both harsh winter weather and low per capita spending on roadway infrastructure, Michigan’s roads are among the worst in the nation. According to a 2015 Detroit Free Press report, 38 percent of Michigan’s roads are considered poor, compared to 45 percent rated fair, and 17 percent rated good.
The current state of Michigan’s roads comes at a cost for drivers. The Washington Post reported that drivers in Michigan can expect to pay $686 per year in extra vehicle upkeep costs due to the bad roads—although recent state legislation has increased gas taxes to help pay for road repair.
Urban Roads & Rural Roads
Where you drive can affect how likely you are to have a car accident. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the rate of car crash deaths per 100 million miles traveled is 2.4 times higher in rural areas than in urban areas and the traffic fatality rates in Michigan are in line with this finding. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that nearly 60% of Michigan’s 963 traffic fatalities in 2015 occurred on rural roads, even though rural roads account for a mere 29.5% of the vehicle miles driven in Michigan.
Urban driving does not immunize you from serious car accidents, but Michigan does have a few unique roadway designs and driving courtesies that help keep drivers in urban areas safer. In particular, the “Michigan left” (also known as a “jughandle”) replaces left turns against traffic with a right turn followed by a U-turn. Traffic studies have found that this design greatly reduces left-turn collisions and leads to a minor reduction in merging collisions.
And Michiganders tend to be very courteous with regard to slower moving cars yielding to faster ones. One Michigan transplant from Indiana has noticed this courtesy makes driving much safer:
“On the expressway, slower moving vehicles move over for faster approaching vehicles. That’s how it’s supposed to work everywhere, but in Michigan, if you are approaching a vehicle from behind in the left lane, they move over and let you pass. In Indiana, a car going 75 or 80 mph would end up waiting for the guy going 67 to pass the truck going 65. … And even then the slower car might stay in the left lane and cars would start to pass in the right lane, which creates more hazardous driving. I rarely see this in Michigan.”
Although these factors help make urban driving in Michigan somewhat safer, it is important to remember that there were a total of 382 traffic fatalities in urban areas in 2015. It’s not enough to rely on good road design and courteous driving to keep you safe in urban areas.
The Price of Gas
The cost of a fill-up in Michigan recently went up after the gas tax went into effect to help pay for road repair. But even with the recent tax addition, the average Michigan gas price is only slightly higher than the average nationwide gas price. Drivers in Michigan pay an average of $2.451 per gallon of regular unleaded (as of March 31, 2017), compared to $2.314 nationwide. The average price of gas across the state is relatively stable, ranging from a low of $2.378 in Marquette to a high of $2.480 in Grand Rapids.
Note that lower gas prices encourage more people to drive because they can more easily afford a fill-up and non-essential trips in their cars. This puts more drivers on the road, which unfortunately means more accidents.
The Unemployment Rate
Nationwide unemployment rates tend to be a big concern in Michigan in that economic fluctuations have a major effect on employment in the automotive industry. When the economy is doing poorly, fewer people can afford to buy cars—so a high unemployment rate at the national level often signals an even higher unemployment rate in Michigan. As of February 2017, the national unemployment rate was 4.7 percent, whereas the Michigan unemployment rate was 5.3 percent.
Unemployment also affects driving rate. When more people are employed, more people are on the road driving to and from work and leisure activities. Drivers in Michigan spend an average of 24 minutes commuting to work each way. According to James Doherty, who has commuted in cities as varied as Columbus, Ohio, New York City, and Washington, D.C., “Rush hour in Detroit is easy. No major tunnels or bridges (unless you’re crossing into Canada) to slow anything down.” Michiganders may not enjoy their commutes, but they are easier than commutes in other parts of the country.
Michigan’s Teen Drivers
Teenagers are among the most dangerous drivers on the road. Michigan’s graduated driver licensing program was put in place to help teens develop safe driving skills as they learn the ways of the road.
SEE ALSO: How to Monitor Your Teen’s Driving
Teens as young as 14 years and 9 months may apply for a Level 1 license. This license allows a teen to drive with a parent or licensed adult age 21 or older. To be eligible for this license, teens must take a three-week driver education class.
Once the teen has held a Level 1 license for a minimum of six months, has completed further driver education (including 50 hours of driving practice), and has reached the age of 16, they may apply for a Level 2 license. With this license, teens may not drive with more than one passenger under the age of 21 who is not a family member, and they may not drive between 10:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m., unless they participating in an authorized activity or transporting an individual in need of emergency care.
17-year-olds who have held a Level 2 license for at least six months and have 12 consecutive months of crash and violation-free driving may apply for a Level 3 license, which allows them full driving privileges with no restrictions. These requirements not only keep teenagers safe and provide their parents some peace of mind, but they also help other drivers in Michigan feel more secure sharing the road with teens.
Distracted driving describes any situation in which a driver is paying close attention to something other than the road (e.g., a cell phone). In 2015, Michigan had 28 distracted driving-related fatalities—a 100% increase from 2014.
Michigan is working hard to crack down on distracted drivers. In December 2016, Michigan State Police launched the “Get Your Head Out of Your App” campaign to fight distracted driving. Unmarked state troopers monitor for distracted driving offenses—specifically texting while driving. A first offense results in a $100 ticket, and subsequent offenses result in $200 tickets. Note that although adult drivers can’t text while driving, they are allowed to make and receive cell phone calls.
Michigan has also banned cell phone usage for teen drivers who have a Level 1 or Level 2 graduated driver license. In addition to texting, it prohibits teen drivers from initiating a call, answering a call, or listening to or engaging in verbal communication through a mobile phone. A ticket for violating this ban will set a teen back as much as $295.
Understanding Michigan’s Auto Insurance Rules
Michigan is one of 12 “no-fault” automobile insurance states. What this means is that a driver must carry insurance for their own protection, and that driver is limited in terms of whether they can sue another driver in the event of an accident. With the no-fault system, if you are involved in a car accident, even if it is clearly not your fault, you will file a claim with your insurance company for damages. Unfortunately, this means that good drivers with bad luck may be facing higher premiums if another car causes a crash.
The basic coverage you are required to carry includes:
- Personal Injury Protection: This pays for your medical costs and some of your missed wages if you are injured in a car accident.
- Property Protection: This pays for up to $1 million for damage you cause to property, such as parked cars or fences. It does not cover damage to other cars in traffic.
- Residual Liability Insurance—Bodily Injury and Property Damage: This coverage protects you from being sued, except in certain specific situations.
Note that this basic insurance does not cover repairs to your car. You are required to purchase additional riders to cover such repairs. In addition, the no-fault minimum coverage will pay up to certain amounts if you are found legally responsible for an accident. Those amounts are:
- Up to $20,000 per accident if someone is hurt or killed.
- Up to $40,000 per accident if more than one person is hurt or killed.
- Up to $10,000 for property damage in any other state.
The State of Driving in Michigan
Cars may be a way of life in Michigan, but it’s important for you to remember how much responsibility you have when you get behind the wheel. Understanding the state of driving in Michigan can help you make the best and safest decisions on the road.