Driving in Detroit and Michigan

Main Street, Royal Oak

TripSavvy / Laura Sternberg

Maybe you are dreaming of seeing where the Motown Records label got started in 1959, signing famous artists like Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Lionel Richie, or you want to check out the automobile capital of the world, known as "Motor City." Whether you are new to The Great Lakes State in the Midwestern United States or a frequent visitor, if you are driving to Detroit, Michigan's largest city, or around the state, it's important to be informed of the driving laws.

Rules of the Road

Different states have their own rules of the road. Michigan State Police Traffic Laws and Governors Highway Safety Association nicely summarize the basics, including child safety, seat belts, distracted driving, motorcycles, and more.

  • Seat belts: The driver and front-seat passenger of a motor vehicle operated on a street or highway must wear a correctly adjusted and fastened safety belt in Michigan, though there are certain exceptions, such as if someone has a note from a physician stating they are unable to wear a safety belt for physical or medical reasons. All rear-seat passengers ages 4 through 15 must wear a properly fastened safety belt, and people 16 and over in the back seat are encouraged to use a seat belt as well.
  • Children and car seats: If under 4 years of age, follow the state child restraint law. A child 4 years or older, but less than 8, and who is less than 4 feet 9 inches tall must be properly secured in a child restraint system (booster seat) in accordance with the manufacturer's and vehicle manufacturer's instructions. If a child is 4 years or older but under 16, and 4 feet 9 inches or taller, he/she must be secured in a properly adjusted and fastened safety belt.
  • Motorcycle helmets: In Michigan, wearing a helmet or not is the motorcycle rider's decision, as long as they are 21 years of age or older and have met certain requirements, like passing a motorcycle safety course and taking out additional insurance. Motorcycle helmets must meet federal requirements; those sold through a reputable dealer are usually fine.
  • Driving under the influence: It is illegal for a driver over age 21 to have a bodily alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher, or 0.02 percent or greater if under age 21. Michigan has additional penalties for anyone driving with a BAC of 0.17 percent or higher. Drivers showing signs of impairment can be arrested at any BAC level; and those handling a motor vehicle with any amount of a controlled substance such as heroin or cocaine are subject to the same fines and penalties as drunk drivers, even if showing no signs of impairment.
  • Cell phones: While the state does not make it illegal to use mobile phones while driving, Detroit has an ordinance that bans using a cell phone while driving unless you are using a hands-free device; however, the driver must be pulled over for another traffic violation before being ticketed for cell phone use. An ordinance enforced in a similar way regarding distracting behavior bans texting, eating while driving, and applying makeup.
  • Speeding: When driving in Michigan, the maximum speed limit is 75 miles per hour (mph). In rural areas, speeds for passenger vehicles range from 70 to 75 mph on the freeway, and non-freeway speeds for passenger vehicles and trucks range from 55 to 65 mph.
  • Toll roads: Michigan does not have toll roads, though nearby states do. The topic has been considered by state transportation officials, who claim the toll-free highways are important to tourism, economic development, and commerce.
  • In case of an emergency: Dial 911. If an accident occurs, each motor vehicle operator should share names and addresses, registration numbers of cars involved, and driver’s license information. Contact the closest police department and file a police report—note that Michigan is a “No-Fault” insurance state, so drivers must look to their own insurance company for compensation from an accident, no matter who was at fault.
  • Michigan's Move Over Law: If you see emergency, police, fire, or tow vehicles on the side of the road with their lights flashing, move over one lane if possible and reduce your speed to 10 mph below the posted speed limit.
  • Aggressive drivers: In every state, there are drivers who move too fast and tailgate, run red lights and stop signs, weave their vehicles in and out of traffic, pass on the right when it is illegal, honk, and yell. If you have an interaction with an aggressive driver, and it's safe to do so, get away from the driver, ignore their gestures, and call the police to report the behavior.

Freeways and Roads

Michigan has an extensive system of freeways and roads; in Detroit, they make up the main thoroughfares. The modern network of freeways all connect to each other and include Interstate highways; locals may refer to them by name more than by number. 

I-75, which is called the Walter P. Chrysler Freeway from Downtown Detroit to Pontiac in the north—and Fisher Freeway through southern and central Detroit—leads north to Flint, and goes all the way south to Florida. The 1-75 and I-696 portion in Hazel Park can be backed up with traffic. I-94 (Edsel Ford Freeway and Detroit Industrial Freeway) runs east-west through Detroit and Ann Arbor and Chicago to the west; traffic can be bad in the Midtown area. The major road US 12 (Michigan Avenue) spans west from Downtown Detroit, passing near Ann Arbor, and on to Chicago. M-1 (Woodward Avenue) is another main road that runs north-south and splits the East Side and the West Side; you'll find the Fox Theatre and the Detroit Institute of Arts museum on Woodward Avenue.

Winter Driving Safety

While Michigan winters are by no means consistent, especially around the Detroit area, drivers will undoubtedly encounter more than a little of the white stuff. It helps to know what to expect on Detroit-area roads in regard to snow and ice, ​how to prepare for driving in chilly weather, and some winter driving skills.

During the winter, the Department of Public Works removes snow from major roads, residential streets, and bike lanes using a three-pronged system once there are 3 inches or more of snow on the ground. Look for signs posted on roads declaring snow emergency routes: Parking is not allowed while plowing is taking place. Winter tires are suggested to maximize safety in hazardous conditions with heavy snow.

Tips for Michigan Driving

It's not all about the rules of the road; sometimes trip-planning entails the length of the trip or the cost of the travel. If you're planning to venture in or around the state, you'd be wise to keep informed about things like driving distances, parking, and other costs.

  • Where to find low-priced gas: GasBuddy.com keeps tabs on prices around the country. Generally speaking, gas prices in Michigan tend to be a bit higher than the national average. The site also gives you the state average as it keeps track of the gas stations with the lowest prices; look up the lowest gas prices by neighborhood or city.
  • Estimating the cost of a particular trip: You can also figure out the gas cost for any or all portions of your trip by checking out this trip cost calculator.
  • Driving distances: Find out the expected travel time between Detroit and major destinations you may venture to from Motor City, including Cedar Point, Chicago, Mackinaw City, and Los Angeles.
  • Parking in Detroit: Depending on your destination in the city, you may find parking fees that aren't too costly, along with available parking meters. There are downtown paid parking lots, and the ​Click-and-Park service allows you to reserve a spot for certain events in downtown.

Should You Rent a Car?

If you'd like to have a temporary car rather than bringing your own vehicle, you'll find rental car agencies in many parts of the state, especially in big cities and at the Detroit Metro Airport. Drivers ages 18 to 20 may rent cars in Michigan, with a higher surcharge fee.

If instead of being behind the wheel, you'd rather relax more and spend less money on gas and parking, Michigan has some other options, from ridesharing with Lyft, Uber, or Zipcar to hopping on a bicycle to using public transportation. The Detroit People Mover is an elevated light rail route that loops around the downtown central business district. Also, the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) and the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) provide buses around Detroit, and Amtrak has various train stations in the city.