Are You Smarter Than a Teenage Driver?

Last Updated Jun 1, 2010 8:12 PM EDT

You're an experienced driver. You know the rules of the road, right? Well, maybe not.

Almost a quarter of Americans in a recent survey couldn't pass a written driver's test approximating the state DMV tests teenagers take. In the 20-question survey, sponsored by GMAC Insurance, 24% of the 5,202 respondents couldn't get a passing grade of 70. Those over 45 scored higher than drivers under 45. "Younger drivers probably took a written driver's test more recently, but years of experience of following the rules of the road seem to aid in this test," said Wade Bontrager, a senior vice president at GMAC Insurance.

Take a bow, Kansas drivers: You scored the best, with 82% passing. But New Yorkers! Fuggedaboutit. With just 70% passing, they did the worst.

"As an insurance company, we deal with accidents every day, and most of them could have been avoided if people made some different decisions," Bontrager said. Keep in mind that frequency of accidents is one way insurers set rates for individual car models. (See Car Insurance: Most and Least Expensive Models. )

To see if you're smarter than a teenager, take the National Drivers Test. For that matter, see if you can beat my score; I got 80%.

Where did the test-takers veer off? Only 15% knew what to do at a steady yellow light. Correct answer: Stop if it is safe to do so; the solid yellow happens only between the red and green. Respondents also had trouble knowing a safe following distance. Answer: three seconds. (I missed both of these).

In addition to brushing up on the rules and following them, Bontrager suggests taking these five steps to make yourself a safer driver:

Avoid distractions. Increasingly, police are finding that drivers in accidents were distracted by cell phone calls or texting. But less obvious hazards that take your eyes off the road involve changing the music, talking to passengers or dealing with children. If you have voice commands or steering wheel buttons that control your radio or MP3 player, use them.

Don't speed. Sticking strictly to the speed limit is an issue between you and the Highway Patrol. But do avoid going faster than the general flow of traffic. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety says that speeding contributes to one-third of all accidents, including 11,675 traffic deaths a year.

Don't tailgate. Sticking on the bumper of the car ahead gives you little room to react if something happens. Keep several car lengths back. Tailgating also tends to cut your gas mileage because you're constantly hitting the brakes and then speeding up again. So changing this habit can save money, too.

Pay attention to weather conditions. Any prudent driver will slow down on icy or snowy roads. But even a light rain can make roads slick. Slow down if roads are wet and be careful not to go through turns too fast.

Keep your car in good condition. Problems with brakes, steering, or other components can make a car harder to control and contribute to accidents. (See Auto Repair: Save $300 by Avoiding Dealers.)

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.