Thursday, September 5, 2013

Why Michiganders drive a quarter mile out of their way to make a left turn: The story of the "Michigan Left"

It's second-nature to most Michiganders, but the first time a driver encounters the "Michigan Left," questions fill his or her head.

"Why am I turning right? I want to turn left."

"Okay, I've turned right...why am I being told to drive another quarter mile forward?"

"Okay, NOW I'm being told to turn left. But I'm still a quarter-mile away from the intersection where I started. Basically, I drove a half-mile out of my way to make a left turn."

"Who came up with this system? I hope they were fired."

On its surface, the Michigan Left seems overly complicated and unnecessary. However, traffic studies have shown that it shortens wait times and reduces accidents. The Michigan Left has proven so effective in its home state that other states, and even countries, are implementing similar systems to reduce traffic congestion and cut down on accidents at dangerous intersections.

Most drivers in Michigan know what a Michigan Left is, but for the sake of keeping us all on the same page, I'll try to describe it. The Michigan Left is basically a system in which each left turn requires that a driver either make first a right turn, then a U-turn, or vice versa. The system I've described in my imaginary driver's internal conversation above follows the first pattern: a right turn, then a U-turn. Click on the link below to see a demo from the Michigan Department of Transportation. The imagined scenario at the beginning of this post is what you'll see when you click on the "North to West" button.

"Michigan Left" simulation

The other scenario in the demo, "East to North," requires first a U-turn, then a right turn onto the road where the driver originally wished to make the left turn. In both scenarios, at least one road must be divided (i.e., have a median that separates traffic going in opposite directions) and be multi-laned (i.e., have at least two lanes of traffic going in the same direction).

It seems complex until you've driven it. I hope my explanations haven't added to the confusion. In case they have, here's a diagram from the website (Click on the picture to get a better view.)

Michigan Lefts have been around since the 1960s, when state highway engineers created them to ease traffic congestion in metropolitan areas like Detroit. When making a "regular" left turn, a driver can sometimes block traffic behind him or her for several minutes, depending on how many cars are approaching from the opposite direction. Michigan Lefts eliminate the need for drivers to turn left at intersections, so they keep traffic moving. They also lessen average wait times---as well as reduce the number and severity of collisions that occur---at intersections.

The state installed its first Michigan Left at Eight Mile Road and Livernois Avenue in Detroit. Now, about 700 Michigan Lefts cover the state, with more likely to join them. Michigan Lefts can be a pain, but I prefer to think of them as something that, like the Mystery Spot or Da Yoopers (both of which I love, or at least appreciate), is slightly off the wall, occasionally a source of mockery, but still uniquely "Michigan."

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