Published Thursday, May 27, 2010, by the New York Times Blogs
Nearly 20 Percent of Drivers May Be `Unfit for Roads,' Says Survey
By Tanya Mohn
College and high school students may not be the only ones humbled this time of year by mediocre test results.
Roughly 38 million licensed drivers -- nearly one in five -- would not pass a written drivers exam if taken today, according to a survey released Thursday morning.
The survey, the National Drivers Test, conducted by GMAC Insurance, polled 5,202 licensed drivers from 50 states and the District of Columbia. Driving knowledge was based on 20 questions taken from exams given by state departments of motor vehicles. Questions addressing distracting driving behavior were also included in the report.
The overall findings indicate that many licensed drivers lack knowledge of basic rules and "may be unfit for roads." Eighty-five percent of participants could not identify the correct action to take when approaching a steady yellow traffic light, and many remained confused by safe following distances.
Kansas drivers ranked first in the nation with an average score of 82.3 percent. New York drivers came in last for the third time in six years, with an average score of 70 percent. The national average score was 76.2 percent, down slightly from 76.6 percent in 2009.
Other results showed that the older the driver, the higher the score. And males over 45 earned the highest average test score. Males also out-performed females, over all, and a significantly higher percentage of females than males reported engaging in distracting situations.
Wade Bontrager, senior vice president of GMAC, which is based in Winston-Salem, N.C., said the company conducted similar surveys for the last five years, and many results this year were consistent with previous years. But he said one thing that surprised him this year was that only 5 percent of participants reported texting while driving. "I'm not sure I believe that," he said. "We'd like to see people put their phones down."
Mr. Bontrager said one goal of the report is to encourage drivers to take the test offered in conjunction with the survey's release. "Invariably, what we find is that most people who do take the test are surprised that they do not do as well as they think they will," he said.
Peter Kissinger, president and chief executive of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a nonprofit research and educational organization, said that although he had not seen the new report, he was familiar with past reports by GMAC and similar reports that indicate weak driving knowledge. "I'm not surprised at all," he said.
But the report has the potential to bring attention to the issue. "It can do no harm," Mr. Kissinger said. "If it were to lead to a re-examination of our licensing system, especially for young drivers, then I think it'd be a good thing. But I don't think it will make a difference in the real world."
Mr. Kissinger said that many colleagues believe that education should be a continual process during a driver's lifetime. He mentioned that work in Michigan suggests that drivers are more willing and able to absorb and retain driving knowledge after being licensed and gaining some real world driving experience.
"I think most members of the traffic safety community believe that we could do a better job," he said.