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If you spend any amount of time behind the wheel, the results of a recent national drivers test should scare you. And if they don’t, they should.

In late May, GMAC Insurance reported that nearly 1 in 5 drivers -- or about 38 million Americans -- could not pass a written drivers test if they took it today.

That’s according to the insurer’s annual National Drivers Test survey, which was conducted by polling 5,202 licensed drivers from 50 states and the District of Columbia. The survey posed 20 questions that were culled from various state Department of Motor Vehicles exams.

The general upshot of the results is that a shocking number of licensed American drivers continue to demonstrate a woeful lack of knowledge when it comes to the basic rules of the road. The national average score for the latest survey dropped slightly from 2009 -- from 76.6 percent to 76.2 percent. In ’07, the average score was 78.1 percent, says Wade Bontrager, senior vice president of GMAC Insurance.

If respondents got less than 70 percent correct, that was considered a “failing” score. Pedestrians also have every reason to be afraid -- very afraid -- after hearing that fully 85 percent of those surveyed could not accurately identify the proper action to take when coming up on a yellow traffic light. Especially since one of the “answer options” for the question was: “Go through the intersection before it turns red.”

Also, 73 percent did not know the safe following distance, says Bontrager -- not surprising, given how often we see high-speed tailgating on any freeway in any major metropolitan area during rush hour. The correct answer is actually not measured in distance, but in time. “You need three seconds to come to a safe, complete stop,” said Bontrager. “So, the actual distance you travel during those three seconds depends on how fast you’re driving.

"It’s very discouraging that overall test scores are lower than last year’s,” Bontrager said. "Driving safety must be a top priority, and drivers just have to be aware of the rules of the road at all times.

“Being an insurance company, we see, every day, what happens when people make mistakes on the road -- they end up in accidents, some of them very serious -- and these are accidents that could have been avoided if they followed these rules,” muses Bontrager. “Decisions made in a split-second can determine whether or not you’re able to avoid an accident.”

GMAC began conducting the survey six years ago as a way of raising awareness of the importance of driving safety, and to “spark interest” in drivers improving their knowledge, he says.

The survey tabulates the results regionally as well as on a state-by-state basis and ranked the states in terms of their average scores. Respondents in the Northeast lagged behind their Midwestern motoring brethren. The Northeast had the lowest average test scores -- 74.9 percent -- and the highest failure rate, at 25.1 percent.

Meanwhile, the Midwest region had the highest average test scores -- 77.5 percent -- and the lowest failure rate, at 11.9 percent.

And when ranked on a state-by-state basis, New York drivers were cellar-dwellers. Drivers in the Empire State ranked dead last, with an average score of 70 percent -- just barely a passing grade.

And, what state ranked Number One? That would be Kansas, with an average score of 82.3 percent.

Still, even that 80-percent-plus score in the Jayhawk State is nothing to shout about, because that translates into 20 percent of the drivers surveyed not having enough basic driving knowledge. “Until we start seeing scores of 95 or 100 percent coming out of every state, we still need to see a lot of improvement, across the board,” says Bontrager.

And isn’t just a lack of knowledge that concerns driving-safety experts.

Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, also laments the careless disregard for basic driving rules even by those drivers who do know the rules. “Drivers do need to know the basic rules of the road, but knowing them isn’t the same as obeying them,” said Rader. “Even when we know the speed limit, for example, we still break it. That’s why speeding is a factor in a third of all highway deaths,” adds Rader.

“Drivers also know they shouldn’t run red lights,” yet hundreds of people are killed and thousands are injured by red light runners every year, notes Rader -- who adds that motorists also know that cell phones are a distraction, yet they continue to yak into their phones while driving. “Our highways are a lot like Lake Wobegon (the fictitious town created by NPR's Garrison Keillor) -- most drivers think they’re ‘above average’; it’s all the other ‘idiots’ out there that need to hit the books.

“Research shows that law enforcement (in the form of traffic tickets) may be the best driver education program yet invented.” On the GMAC National Driver’s Test, there was also a “gender gap” of sorts -- men had a higher average score than women -- 78.1 percent, compared to 74.4 percent. The gap was wider when it came to the failure rate -- 24 percent for women, versus 18.1 percent for men.

And, overall, among survey respondents, a significantly higher percentage of women, compared to men, engaged in various "distracted driving" behaviors, like talking on cell phones, adjusting the radio, eating, fiddling with their iPods or applying make-up -- the latter of which is obviously a more gender-specific activity. (Generally speaking, anyway.)

Overall, fully 25 percent of those surveyed said they engaged in these kinds of distracted driving behavior. This was the first year the survey included distracted-driving questions, so there’s no way of knowing whether there was an increase or decrease in this kind of behavior in 2010, compared to previous years.

“But 25 percent is way too high,” admonishes Bontrager.

One consolation is that only five percent said they texted while driving, which suggests that state laws against this wildly dangerous practice -- as well as TV-public-service announcements warning about its hazards -- are having some impact.

So, do you think you’re smarter than the average driver when it comes to knowing the rules of the road? You can find out by going to www.gmacinsurance.com, where you can take the test, see the full state-by-state rankings, play a driving game, and challenge friends to top your score.

Also, Facebook users can go to National Drivers Test Facebook quiz and challenge their FB friends, while Twitter users can follow the Drivers Test Twitter page for updates on state rankings and get some tips on safe driving habits.

Top Safety Picks 2010 from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
Buick LaCrosse
Ford Taurus
Hyundai Genesis (built after 1/2010)
Lincoln MKS
Mercedes E class (built after 1/2010)
Volvo S80

Honda Civic (4-door (except Si) with optional ESC)
Kia Forte (built after 10/2009)
Kia Soul
Nissan Cube
Scion xB
Subaru Impreza (except WRX)
Toyota Corolla
VW Golf (4-door)

Audi A3
Chevrolet Malibu (built after 11/2009)
Chrysler Sebring (4-door w/optional ESC)
Dodge Avenger (with optional ESC)
Hyundai Sonata (2011 models)
Mercedes C class
Subaru Legacy
Subaru Outback
Volkswagen Jetta (sedan)
Volkswagen Passat (sedan)
Volvo C30 (2010-11 models)
Dodge Journey
Subaru Tribeca
Volvo XC60
Volvo XC90

Honda Element
Jeep Patriot (w/optional side torso airbags)
Subaru Forester
Volkswagen Tiguan

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 4 Months Ago
      i have to agree it was a waste they should have put the test on here but if you really think about it the answer is simple a yellow light means "caution" if you are to close to stop then you can go through but it doesn't mean if you are 2 or more car lenks away to gas it an go. god people use your brains. some of you are the reason there are so many accidents. you want to act stupid over something so simple. so the next time you are coming up on a yellow light and you have time to stop please do think of the harm you could do to someone because you are tring to get through a light if you are in that big of a hurry then get out of bed and leave a little eairlier. "THINK" BEFORE YOU GET BEHIND THE WHEEL OF A CAR
      • 4 Months Ago
      No wonder so many people fail the yellow light question--it is worded very poorly. The fault, dear Brutus, lies not with the driver, but the question.
      • 4 Months Ago
      Where's the stuipd test?
      • 4 Months Ago
      Questions 8 and 18 - the GMAC preferred answers are in conflict with the New York State Drivers' Manual. See the NY manual section on "passing on the right" in Chapter 6 which says passing on the right is OK "on a one-way road that is marked for two or more lanes or is wide enough for two or more lanes, and passing is not restricted by signs." Chapter 4 for traffic signals states that the yellow light means "be ready to stop." So, if GMAC says you got these wrong you would be OK in New York. It is a problem that the states and governmental subdivisions are not uniform on their laws, regulations and manuals.
      • 4 Months Ago
      Exactly... stop if its safe to do so...
      • 4 Months Ago
      I'm not suprised 20% cannot pass the test. Pulling subjects from FaceBook is like conducting the test on third grade students. Same mentality. If you want an honest score eliminate the connection to FaceBook.
      • 4 Months Ago
      To the author: You're an idiot
      • 4 Months Ago
      Most drivers in todays society feel that the rules of the road , or any other rules , do not apply to them .
      • 4 Months Ago
      in Florida people do not signal turns or lane changes, do not stop at yellow, make left turns when arrow has turned red, do not stop before turning right on red etc. Get the picture, Running red lights has prompted authorities to install cameras at specific intersections. When the liscense bureau renews driver liscenses to folks over 85 by mail for 7yrs what can you expect. A friend 99 received a 7yr liscense by mail!
      • 4 Months Ago
      In California the drivers I have seen are the worst. Taking irresponsible chances, speeding, cutting in and out, no use of signals and treating the car lane as an Autobahn with, for them, no speed limit. Sorry, but women are the worst, particularly if they are in big SUV's! Thay are more prone to speeding, tailgating and flipping you the bird if you honk at them!
      • 4 Months Ago
      Do nothing politicians, lobbys for trucking and other transportation interest. and dumb voters who continue to put idiots and self centered people in office. Running red lights should be a custodial offense. Some intersections have cameras. but what do we get. ? Idiots calling for their removal.
      • 4 Months Ago
      The yellow light means prepare to stop, pure and simple! There are those that are going to try to change that fact within their own manner of mental deduction however it does not change that fact. Observance of this simple rule of safety can save lives and save you money. Your choice.
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