New York Drivers Among the Most Ignorant of Traffic Laws

With the summer "driving season" almost upon us, a startling new survey finds that about 20 percent of American motorists — close to 38 million people — don’t know enough to pass a written driving test.

GMAC Insurance put 20 questions before some 5,000 licensed drivers from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. CNN/Money reports that the average score was 76.2 percent, reflecting a slight dip from 2009. That’s apparently the good news. Meanwhile:

Nearly three out of four couldn’t identify safe following distances and some 85% incorrectly responded to questions about what to do when approaching a steady yellow light. This signals that licensed drivers lack knowledge of fundamental road rules, GMAC Insurance said.

One in four drivers admitted to "talking on a cell phone, eating, or adjusting their radios or iPods" while driving, and five percent said they text from behind the wheel — a "surprisingly low" number that probably says more about successful social stigmatizing than actual habits

On average, Midwestern drivers scored highest on the test, with Northeasterners faring the worst. According to the survey, drivers in Kansas are the most informed, while the most ignorant are in New Jersey — ranking just two spots below New York license-holders.

As a licensed driver who hasn’t taken a written test since age 16, I can’t help wondering how well I would do. If you’re curious yourself, you can take the test here.

  • Paul

    This isn’t suprising. We don’t retest anyone unless they have their licenses taken away. We should probably retest people every four years or so. I don’t recall the test being that hard, so I don’t think people should be all that worried about passing it again with a little studying up.

  • Paul

    On another note though. Taxi drivers should be tested yearly if not monthly. I’m amazed that they let these drivers obtain a license.

  • Moser

    Yeah I don’t see anything startling about it. Driver’s ed and the driving test are both a joke. Driving from age 16 is a de facto right whose risks are only taken seriously by tiny groups in the public and officialdom. NY State DMV’s main internal performance metric is how long people have to wait in line at service offices.

  • When we did our transportation survey [PDF] back in 2006-2007, Upper Green Side found some real broad support for testing motorists regularly. Only 14% said “only after a moving violation” and 1% said “never”

  • eliot

    Wow. I don’t have a license — never even took drivers’ ed — and I scored a 65.

    How can your average driver only get 2 more question right than I did? I wouldn’t even know how to turn on the windshield wipers.

    When owning and driving a car is an assumed part of daily life, people think of it as a right, not a privilege. It’s time to reverse that assumption and raise the bar for people who want to drive a car in a pedestrian city.


    There are three major problems with the american testing system:

    1) No retests. People should have to take the written test every time they renew.

    2) Amazingly easy. At least in California, 36 questions and you can get 6 wrong to pass. In other countries, it’s more like 100 questions. In Brazil, besides the written test, there is a phsychological test and a drug test.

    3a) The questions aren’t relevant. Why do you need to know how many feet before a stop sign you need to start braking? Last I checked, roads dont have lines measuing distance. Car length is a more relevant distance. Even better would be questions about safety and such. Distance questions should be kept to the driving test.
    3b)Half the questions in california are about DUI. What about speed and pedestrian safety? How many people understand the legal standing of an unmarked crosswalk? Id say less then 10%.

  • My concern is that people who passed the written driver’s test thirty years ago may have no idea what sharrows or a bike box may be. Riding to the Greenway earlier this week, over Prince, Charlton and Houston Streets, there seemed to be disproportionate number of cars with New Jersey plates in the bike lane. Are they just taking advantage because they’re out of state and figure violations won’t catch up with them, or do they have no idea what a bike lane might be? Or maybe they’re just too busy trying to find their way back to the Holland Tunnel to look.

  • JamesR

    I always wonder if there have been any sociologists, social psychologists, historians, or others out there that have done any studies as to exactly why New York & Tri-state area drivers are so vicious and uncivil. I’ve driven in different areas all over the country, and while the US is full of bad drivers, New York drivers are just the nastiest of the nasty in their behavior – skilled in terms of ability but ugly, aggressive, and bullying in character. Is it because it’s such an immigrant gateway, that all of the newcomers bring their clashing driving habits from the Old Country with them, leading to immense frustration and roadway anarchy? Or is it something else? Really, I would love to know the answer.

  • J:Lai

    I think the relentless auto congestion in the NY-metro area leads to aggressive driving. The behavior of the most aggressive subset of drivers sets the standard for everyone else. Under classic game theory, it doesn’t make sense to be polite and give the other guy a chance to merge if you don’t expect reciprocal courtesy. It is to your benefit to act like you are willing to to suffer a collision, so that other drivers let you cut them off, etc.

    This extends to interactions with non-car road users. The asymmetric consequences of a collision between car and pedestrian or bike are used by drivers to intimidate walkers and bikers.

  • Westchesterite

    Hey J:Lai,

    What you said was interesting. Are there other resources you can refer me about game theory as it relates to driver-pedestrian interaction?

  • J:Lai

    The driver-pedestrian interaction in game theoretic context is just speculation on my part, as the only literature I am aware of only deals with interactions between drivers.

  • New Jersey drivers the dumbest?!?! Tell me something I don’t know.

    And we wonder why we’ve traditionally have had the worst insurance rates in the nation.

    J:Lai, your analysis is spot on.

  • New Yorkers would have fared better had the test avoided “theoretical road conditions” and hewed more to the real world. For example:

    How many hundredths of a second should you wait behind a vehicle yielding to a grandmother with a cane crossing with the light in a crosswalk before firmly pressing on the horn for a minimum of 10 seconds?

    a) 1/100th of a second
    b) at least 7/100th of a second
    c) What do you mean wait? Pull around the other car and speed through the crosswalk

    If you’re approaching an intersection and the light turns yellow, you should:

    a) Demonstrate that you’re “not a real New Yorker” and most likely a trust-funder from Kansas by braking
    b) Continue at a consistent speed through the intersection as the light turns red, in hopes that the driver tailgating you will do the same, thus shielding you from the red-light camera
    c) Floor it to make sure you can get quickly to the red light at the next intersection.

    On-street bicycle lanes and protected bike paths:

    a) Make for convenient passing lanes
    b) Are ideal for stopping in while you run into the dry cleaners, pick up your child from school for the two-block drive home, and attend religious services
    c) Cause horrible congestion, are far more dangerous than wide three-lane one-way avenues plagued by speeding and create unwarranted safe havens for lawbreakers who “nearly hit me when I was crossing the street three years ago”
    d) All of the above

  • Eric McClure FTW.

  • JayinPortland

    Ha, New Jersey ranking ‘most ignorant’ shocks me just as much as it does Andy B…


    I grew up in North Jersey and live in Portland, Oregon now. I typically visit back home once a year, and when I do I tell friends and family that it takes me about 3 days just to successfully adjust my ‘pedestrian style’ back and forth between the local norms. They think I’m joking, but I’m serious. It really is a pretty extreme culture shock.

    For the most part, Oregon drivers will yield to insects crossing the street if they see them. I’m only slightly exaggerating, but seriously they don’t even use horns here. You can spend an entire rush hour walking around Downtown Portland, morning or afternoon, and not hear one angry horn blown from a vehicle.

    Back in Newark though, well I’m sure you all know…

    I’ve been a licensed driver since high school in New Jersey, although I haven’t owned a car in years and I never will again barring unforeseen circumstances (like say, buying a ranch in Wyoming, where I’d probably need a pickup or something).

    I did get a couple of questions wrong here on my written (well, ‘computer terminal’) test when I handed in my NJ drivers license for an Oregon one, but in my defense the questions I got wrong were about what hand signals from horse riders and cattle ranchers mean. I’m guessing that’s more pertinent to rural Eastern Oregon drivers than to bus riders and pedestrians who live in the city of Portland, but I’m still glad that now I know what those mean as well. Heh…

  • Streetsman

    Glad to see a post on the DMV-reform angle it sorely needs to be addressed. Repeating some ideas here but they need to be said again:

    1. The road and written tests here are much too easy – you need to know a lot more about your vehicle, signage, and all kinds of driving conditions in many other countries.

    2. Drivers should need to retake written and road tests periodically. You forget stuff, and you get lazy and develop bad habits. Repeating the test is important to ensure drivers remember the rules (even if they don’t follow them). The system now is more like cramming to graduate high school and then never using what you learned again and slowly forgetting it.

    3. It’s way to easy to KEEP your license here. More than one major moving violation (speeding, red lights, etc) should mean automatic removal of your license for a period of time, and then you have to retake the tests to get it back. Also the fines could be much higher for things like speeding or running lights and THEY SHOULD INCREASE SIGNIFICANTLY WITH REPEAT OFFENSES. Not doing this is DMV shirking their responsibility to make negative reinforcement part of the driver safety equation. You can get fined $500 for not recycling, but the vast majority of moving violation tickets are less than $200.

    The licensing and punitive aspects are vital components of managing traffic safety and yet NYS DMV is rarely ever held directly accountable for traffic safety statistics, which is too bad because their meaningful contribution in my opinion is sorely lacking.

  • Streetsman

    And I think if you drove around with city drivers on the streets and pretended you were on a road test, I’m pretty certain you would find 100% failure rate. What does that say about the road test’s lack of relevance and the DMV’s lack of responsibility for traffic safety?

  • NY State DMV’s main internal performance metric is how long people have to wait in line at service offices.

    Lots of great comments here, but I agree with the editors that Moser wins this thread. It invites speculation about what a better metric would look like.

  • Oh, and in regards to Streetsman’s point, I failed my first road test because I turned left across oncoming traffic at a red light. Doesn’t everybody?

  • Grinner

    Re-testing == good. Regionally ranking scores == funny.

    With the test open, though, the highlighted bad news takes on a different light. Rephrasing the first point, nearly three out of four drivers think that a safe following distance is 10 or 20 seconds, not 3 second.

    My real quibble is with the “… 85% incorrectly responded to questions about what to do when approaching a steady yellow light” factoid. That question present 4 possible answers, so even blind guessing should result in only 75% getting the question wrong. To me, that says “poor question,” and i’d almost bet that the 15% who got it right have all taken the written exam in the state whose DMV furnished the question. (Of course, i’m just quibbling because that is the question i missed when taking the test.)

    I’m certain that Mr. Kromanoff can decimate my take on the numbers, but when i see 76.3% as an average, i think “ah, a ‘C’,” which is generally considered, well, average when testing. In other words, average driver == average.

    I think that i would be much happier if the average on this test was a ‘D,’ because it would mean that the testing standard has gone up.

  • Ian Turner


    Would you want a doctor who got a C in medical school? A lawyer who got a C in law school? If not, then why should you be subject to drivers who got a C in driving school?

  • Practicing as a doctor or a lawyer is a privilege. Operating heavy machinery in the public right-of-way is your god-given right as an American citizen.

  • Grinner


    Truthfully, it would depend upon the school. Would i want a doctor who had average scores at Grinner’s Television School of Medicine? I would not. Would i want a doctor who had average scores at, say, Cornell’s School of Medicine? Yes, that would be fine. In fact, that is probably why licenses to practice law and medicine are pass/fail.

    I can take the analogy further: if i am going to a doctor to have a valve replaced on my heart, i really don’t care what her scores were on the written test; i care what her practical tests reveal.

    I am afraid that the two points i tried to make in my last comment were muddled; i do that, and i apologize. I’ll try to clarify, though that’ll probably also be muddled.

    My first point is that the test is composed of a number of questions that are not very good at all, so, in my view, it reveals more about the testing entity and the reporters than it does about the driving public. Despite what Ms. Sutton implies, the fact that an average driver gets an average score on a written driving exam is not alarming; the average Prometheus Society member gets an average score on the entrance exam for their organization, too.

    That leads to my second point, which was more clearly stated by others: the written tests to obtain a driver’s license in the US are too easy (as is the whole process). What is alarming about the results is that the average driver who was tested scored an average score on *this* test.

    Would i like our drivers to be better? I certainly would. That’s why i would rather have seen an average score of 66.3%, because i could read that as an improvement in the testing. Additionally, a report like that could provide fodder for the re-testing requirement fight.

    Anyway, i think i’ve blathered on enough about what is essentially a fluff-piece (and yesterday’s news at that) about a fluff poll conducted by an entity that has a vested interest in putting more cars on the road.

    [Please insert friendly smiles and grins where appropriate; i’m not nrealy as worked up about this as i am about the picture of the German luxury automobile on the greenway.]

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    Wow, I only got three wrong (a B!) and I have never owned a driver’s license.

  • Ed

    No, they are NOT ignorant. They just don’t care. In the City of NY, the speed limit on the highways is 50MPH. Not 150. Not 95.4. Not 88.6. 50MPH… The speed limit on City streets is 30MPH unless posted LOWER.

    I work as an FDNY EMS Lieutenant on midnights in Queens. We are at the point where we need to park fully loaded dump trucks on the scenes of Motor Vehicle Accidents in order to protect ourselves, because drivers do not pay attention to emergency crews operating at those scenes. Drivers ROUTINELY speed through accident scenes at speeds in excess of 70mph. Many drivers are doing speeds in excess of 80-90mph when they get into accidents. Many motorcyclists are doing over 100mph on the highways. It’s not the minority of drivers, it’s the majority.

    The same goes for City streets… NOBODY drives 30 mph. The speeds on Queens Blvd ROUTINELY go over 60-70mph. The worst offenders are the taxis,livery cabs, and limos. Speed limits mean nothing to them.

    Instead of cutting back, they need to ADD more Highway Patrol units, and radar cars in the Precincts. If you are elderly, your chances of making it across Queens Blvd or Woodhaven Blvd are slim to none.

    So, it’s got nothing to do with being ignorant. It’s has to do with not giving a damn.

  • Steve F

    Warning, crank up he sarcasm button:
    Ed, thanks for educating me, all along I thought the NYC speed limits were MINIMUMS. Who knew 30 MPH was a maximum!?!
    You can now return to your regular programming.

    Your point about adding Highway Patrol units suffers from a critical safety flaw, there are few safe places for the cops to pull drivers over. You pointed out how you need to place protective dump trucks at crash scenes. It also has a budgetary problem; the need for lots more cops and police cars to carry this out.

    A safer, cheaper and more comprehensive solution is the use of red light and speed cameras. The offending driver does not have to be stopped on highways with no shoulders & on overcrowded streets; the fine comes in the mail. Drivers are in a total panic over these cameras, because they know they really do work – though they have some really creative excuses about how they can be rigged. Our “outstanding” state legislators (assembly head Silver tops the list) keep rolling over to the motorists lobby and refuse to allow NYC install more than a pittance of these cameras. NYC needs state approval to implement traffic safety measures in the city.

    Personal experience: I got a red light ticket on S.I. Followed a truck too closely through an intersection and misjudged the yellow light timing. I really did go through a red. My bad. Paid the fine. Learned the lesson. Won’t do that again.

    So what is it about drivers who insist that everybody else has to follow the law, except them?

  • How is this startling? At all? I’m surprised even that many passed the test. I live in New York State. No one uses a signal. No one drives the speed limit; they either drive ten under or fifteen above. They mow over animals without pause and sit through green lights so the second car is already going through a yellow. I was so fed up with the left lane campers that hold up the entire interstate that I started a petition but I know it won’t go anywhere because no one around here even knows about the stay-right laws. If not for the environment, we need an affordable railroad system to get people off the roads, because people just can’t drive.


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