History left by Michigan lefts

Emily Morris, WXOU News Director

Although “Michigan lefts” do not have a political stance, the regional turn does have some opinions related to it. In comparison to iconic Michigan traffic tools the original stoplight and the first paved road in America, Woodward Avenue the Michigan left has an equally historic value. 

For anyone not as familiar with Michigan roads, Michigan lefts are used following intersections that do not allow left turns — instead a left turn lane is available on the median of cross traffic. Over half a century after its creation, Michigan lefts are still an expanding feature across the state. The traffic turn is not only a unique part of our roads, Michigan lefts have revolutionary ties to the auto industry.  

The auto industry sprouted in the late 1800s and soon emerged as a commonality on the roads. Upon entering the 20th century, automobiles were proving to be, both, an innovation and a danger. The Detroit News reported that the summer of 1908 recorded 31 people had died in car accidents and the amount of injuries was immeasurably high.  

The next decade introduced Telegraph Road, which has been dubbed a “Super Highway” of its time, according to Stanley D. Lingeman, author of “The State of Michigan Trunk Line Story.” The roadways desperately needed to make an improvement to keep up with the auto industry.

Although this period may seem distant roughly a century separation from today this was the same time a prominent Oakland University figure entered the auto industry. Matilda Dodge Wilson, the founder of our university, began as a secretary for the Dodge Motor Company in 1902. Wilson continued to grow her ties with Dodge, and eventually married John Dodge, her first husband. 

The roadways meeting the needs of auto companies, like Dodge, was vital to progressing the popularity and safety of cars. Roads did improve and secure automobiles becoming a commonality; in fact, the Dodge Motor Company was at the root of Wilson becoming the heir to one of the largest fortunes in the United States at the time: $146 million. This sum allowed Wilson to delve into charity work and, eventually, form Michigan State Oakland, which was the beginning of our modern Oakland University. 

By the 1960s, Michigan continued to improve, and the Michigan left, was introduced in  response to a still booming auto industry and, in turn, packed roads. Because of the local innovation, the turn was given our namesake, hence, Michigan left. They originated on Telegraph Road and have expanded to a feature throughout the state.  

The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) reports that Michigan lefts not only “relieve congestion; it [also] increases safety by reducing the number and severity of crashes.” Any road that includes a Michigan left has had a 30-60% decrease in car accidents. In fact, during each construction project in Michigan, the MDOT considers adding more Michigan lefts if there is a “divided roadway” involved. The addition has also made pedestrian travel much safer as people can cross a road in two movements.   

The MDOT can report safer roads because of the Michigan left, but the seemingly simple turn is also a remnant of our history. The Michigan left revolutionized our roads and allowed the auto industry to continue to flourish. Michigan lefts are a daily factor for almost all Michigan drivers and a product of local automotive companies (including Dodge Motors). Our daily commutes along basic pavement have more purpose and history than may meet the eye.