Are Detroit Area Roads & Drivers Really That Bad?

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber

In general, I think the folks around the Motor City drive pretty well. We have our idiosyncrasies, what others might call poor lane discipline we call going for the open spot, but for the most part I don’t feel like I’m driving among maniacs. Something that I noticed while shooting a video to show our readers the route I take when evaluating a review car for ride and handling is making me question that assessment.

I added a couple of the ramps at the intersection of Telegraph Road and Eight Mile Road to my usual evaluation route because they’re fun to drive and give me a good idea how a car will handle multiple apex turns. If you look at the view from space, you can see why. There are multiple apexes and while there’s some symmetry, no two of the ramps are exactly alike. Also, unlike most ramps, a couple of them have left turns, well, kinks in the middle actually, which gives me an idea how the car handles weight transfer from side to side. I find the ramps there challenging to hit the apexes correctly as well as situate the car appropriately in traffic. In particular, the ramp from eastbound Eight Mile to northbound Telegraph is tricky. You enter the ramp and make a not too tight turn followed by a short straight which leads into a tight decreasing radius turn onto Telegraph. You want to carry speed through the second turn not because you’re playing boy racer on public roads but rather because you’re merging onto a road where the speed limit is 50 mph.

I generally only take a couple of the ramps regularly, but after driving through most of them perhaps they may be too challenging, too tricky for some drivers. I had noticed that the Armco barriers on the ramps that I did drive on were frequently damaged and the ones that didn’t show signs of contact with cars or trucks were shiny and new, an indication that damaged barriers had been replaced. I didn’t realize just how many accidents there are at that interchange until I shot the video and drove down ramps I’d infrequently seen before.

Just about every ramp had damage to its roadside barriers. Some drivers wrecked even before they got on the ramps. Even stop and yield signs did not escape the wrath of Detroit area drivers. With some of the damage it was hard for me to even figure out how they managed to do it. I presume that alcohol was involved in at least some of the collisions. As you can see from how shiny some of the damaged Armco barrier is, replacement barriers get wrecked even before they can develop any patina.

Speaking of patina, ruins and wrecks make great photographs. As a matter of fact, it’s hard to take a bad photo of something wrecked, ruined or abandoned. The damaged barriers make some very interesting shapes. I hope nobody got badly injured making those shapes.

Start the video, then click on the settings icon to select 2D or your choice of 3D formats

To answer the first question in the headline, yes, Detroit area roads are really that bad. How bad are they? Well when you see a medium duty truck slow to a 15 mph crawl in a 40 mph zone so the cargo (or truck) isn’t damaged, you know the roads are somewhere between “is this really paved?” and “the dark side of the moon”. The double whammy of repeated freeze/thaw cycles and a poor state economy for a couple of decades has resulted in potholes, craters and chasms in our roads. Two of the steel rims on my daily driver have been bent.

Start the video, then click on the settings icon to select 2D or your choice of 3D formats

Things are getting better. Just about everyone in the state agrees that the roads need fixing and even our fiscally conservative governor has advocated an increase in the gasoline tax to repave the worst roads here. Some of that attitude in Lansing is changing the facts where the rubber meets the road. Since I shot the video, at least a couple of the roads pictured therein, Greenfield Road in front of the Northland shopping center and Ten Mile Road east of Southfield are currently under repair. It’s my guess that the same contractor paved both roads since both appear to have the same systemic failure at each expansion joint. Aren’t road builders supposed to post performance bonds and give some kind of guarantee?

As with most of my posts, I tried to work some automotive history into this mix but try as I may I haven’t been able to find out much about the history of Armco barriers or who designed them first. The steel company that gave them their generic name was founded at the end of the 19th century in Ohio as the American Rolling Mill Company, using the initials to rename itself Armco in 1948. Today it’s called AK Steel, a joint venture of Armco and Kawasaki Steel.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

Ronnie Schreiber
Ronnie Schreiber

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, the original 3D car site.

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  • Haroldingpatrick Haroldingpatrick on Sep 15, 2014

    What a timely question as I just returned from the area and not only live in upstate SC discussed above, but i also work as a resident engineer for the state DOT. Michigan drivers seemed just fine to me and the secondary roads sucked, but ours do too so don't feel bad. I'll say this: a lot of the bad things people think about government are true. There are a couple of reasons that explain part of it. First, the government gets sued a lot, more than anyone I would guess. I can assure you that nearly every serious accident will result in a lawsuit against the applicable government owner of the road. It doesn't matter if the driver was 3 times the legal blood alcohol limit and admitted to texting at the time of the accident - the DOT gets sued and has to deal with the lawsuit regardless of merit. We pay the same for lawyers as anyone else. Much of government policy is driven by litigation. Second, every single politician wants things for his constituents, he doesn't give a damn about the state as a whole. Third, senior government agency staff, at least in SC, work "at will", meaning they can be let go just because. Add all of this up and it equals litigation driven road policy and a real inability to approach a statewide road system in a rational way because everyone who can make a real decision can get gone if he doesn't make the local bully state representative happy. Some politicians have more weight than others and it creates imbalances. Politicians aren't bad, they just want to make their constituents happy. In SC if you hit one of those end treatment attenuators pictured above and are at fault per highway patrol, your insurance company will get a bill from the DOT for the repair. People are shocked to learn that those things are expensive to replace.

  • Alluster Alluster on Sep 15, 2014

    In my personal experience I have noticed an area's economy and ones job security plays a huge roll in how good or bad the drivers are. People drive like maniacs when times are good. An economically depressed Detroit area driver who can't buy a break is going to be wary of speeding tickets, wrecks and insurance premiums going up, that he/she will try to stay out of trouble. An investment banker in Connecticut pulling $600,000 a year is not going to give a rat's ass. Chicago had the worst drivers in my experience followed by Atlanta and Southern Connecticut. Sitting in bumper to bumper traffic all day will bring the worst out of people.

  • Lou_BC Maybe if I ever buy a new car or CUV
  • Lou_BC How about telling China and Mexico, we'll accept 1 EV for every illegal you take off our hands ;)
  • Analoggrotto Level 50 Trolling at it's finest. Well done.
  • Lorenzo The unspoken killer is that batteries can't be repaired after a fender-bender and the cars are totaled by insurance companies. Very quickly, insurance premiums will be bigger than the the monthly payment, killing all sales. People will be snapping up all the clunkers Tim Healey can find.
  • Lorenzo Massachusetts - with the start/finish line at the tip of Cape Cod.