Tom Caru

Michigan: Learning to drive backwards

Adventuring overseas, Tom Caru is having some trouble understanding the rules in the strange frontier he’s navigating; Detroit, Michigan.


When I first moved to the US from Australia, I was surprised by how many trucks and SUVs dotted the landscape. However after only a few days on Michigan roads, I was surprised that anyone drove anything else. The term “off-road vehicle” doesn’t really apply when off-road could actually be the smoother option. (Incidentally, you know you have a problem with your roads when an infographic of “How potholes are formed” is considered newsworthy.) And while I have never set foot on the cratered surface of the moon, if I ever did, it would remind me of the I-496 out of Lansing.

One small step for man, one giant leap over a pothole.

Learning to drive on the right side of the road while sitting at a steering wheel on the left side of the vehicle has been enough of a challenge without worrying about the deteriotating-creme-brulee surface under the wheels. You don’t realize how much your senses have been programmed to respond to traffic moving in a certain way – suddenly switch that around and you have one part of your brain screaming that you’re about to die, and the another part telling you to relax, that driving is easy, you’ve done this a hundred times before.

To help familiarise me with the surroundings, my father-in-law took me out on the country roads near Williamson, whereupon I spotted another strange natural phenomena. Mailboxes. Mailboxes that brace the road, an unbreaking line just beyond the reach of your mirrors. I mean, I agree that the mailman shouldn’t have to run half a mile to push the mail through the front door of a farmhouse, but the sporadic flashes of red in my peripheral vision really started to freak me out. How can I swerve to miss a pothole if I have to worry about crashing into a mailbox? A nonsensical state of affairs which, I was later to learn, has its own place in the native lexicon: #puremichigan

Another major adjustment for me has been accepting the concept that you can turn right on a red light. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the reasoning – I just think it is dangerous to tamper with the implicit nature of red meaning stop and green meaning go. But it’s already too late, in Michigan, red means “stop sometimes”. You can imagine how much my mind was blown when I encountered an intersection with a flashing sign stating “No right on red”, pretty much the equivalent of “actually stop this time”, or, “stop at stop sign, this time we really mean it”.

Don’t get me started on four-way stop sign intersections. I asked my wife (who is slowly tutoring me on local traffic laws) who has right of way and she said, “Whoever arrives first”. Ask anyone waiting to be served at a bar, “Okay who’s next?” and you’re bound to meet with some disagreement. In my experience drinkers are far more relaxed than motorists, so, sounds like a foolproof system.

While I haven’t been to every country in the world, I have been to a fair few, so I think I can say with some experience that to most of the world the zebra-like stripes of the pedestrian crossing are pretty sacrosanct.

Not in East Lansing.

Statistically, I probably shouldn’t be alive to write this, given the amount of times I have stepped confidently out onto a pedestrian crossing only to nearly be hit by a car speeding by without slowing. I’m not talking about the crossings where the lines are so worn or obscured by potholes that drivers can be forgiven for not seeing them. I’m referring to the brand spanking new crossings with the fluoro yellow signage and lines so white you could get snow blind.

Perhaps this casual approach to clear traffic messaging is an aftereffect of the whole “red means stop sometimes” fiasco. Amber is the only colour (sic) that should be ambiguous. How are “stop light parties” going to function if red means “In a relationship sometimes”?

Is it just a little bit ironic that a state with such horrible roads is also the home of the “Motor City” (Detroit)? Maybe we should all start zooming about in hovercrafts? We could float right over the potholes, the lakes wouldn’t slow us down and there would be more cushioning when we knock over foolish pedestrians.


Tom Caru

Tom is a writer, healthy lifestyle enthusiast and a stark raving mad Batfleck fan. Coffee lover, traveller and creator of the *Around the World in 80 Gyms*® project. He currently resides in Michigan, eternally searching for better coffee and learning to drive on the other side of the road.

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