By Mark Huffman

May 28, 2010

One reason the highway is an increasingly dangerous place is because too many drivers don't know what they are doing, an insurance company study suggests.

GMAC Insurance conducted an online survey, posing 20 questions taken from state driving license exams. The results showed many respondents might have flunked if it had been a real test.

For example 85 percent of respondents did not know how to react to a traffic signal where the light was yellow. Others showed confusion on other questions or admitted to unsafe habits like texting while driving.

If the test results were averaged out nationally, the study suggests nearly 20 percent of licensed drivers -- some 38 million motorists -- "may be unfit for roads" and wouldn't pass a state-issued written exam if taken today, the study said. The average test score fell from 76.6 percent in 2009, and 78.1 percent in 2008.

"It's discouraging to see that overall average test scores are lower than last year," said Wade Bontrager, senior vice president, GMAC Insurance. "American drivers need to make safety a top priority and be aware of the rules of the road at all times. The National Drivers Test allows everyone to brush up on their driving knowledge with a brief refresher course."

Score breakdown

Where are the nation's worst drivers? Motorists from New York had the worst record on the survey, followed by drivers in New Jersey, Washington, California and Rhode Island.

Drivers in Kansas did the best, followed by Oregon, South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa. In general, drivers in the Midwest seemed to be the most informed about the rules of the road while drivers in the Northeast fared worst.

Men over age 45 tended to score the highest, the survey shows, while men overall outscored women, who admitted to engaging in more distracting behavior while behind the wheel.

Lack of attention

Additional questions from the survey reveal drivers conduct a variety of distracting behaviors behind the wheel; approximately one in four participants admitted to driving while talking on a cell phone, eating and adjusting the radio or selecting songs on an iPod. However, only five percent reported they text while driving.

Overall, a significantly higher percentage of females than males reported engaging in the following distracting situations: conversation with passengers, selecting songs on an iPod or CD/adjusting the radio, talking on a cell phone, eating, applying make-up and reading.