Study Says Most Drivers Would Fail Written Driver Exams if Re-Tested

By Chris Haak

If you’re more than 32 years old, chance are that you’ve now been driving for more years than you have not been driving.  I got my license at age 16, so I just passed the two-decade mark behind the wheel this past spring.  I’ve naturally become a better driver during those 20 years, doing a better job of anticipating others’ actions, knowing how fast (or slow) to drive in various conditions, and becoming much better at understanding the physics of car control.

But thinking back to when I was 15 years old and studying for the written exam required prior to issuance of my learner’s permit, there was a powder-blue hard copy Pennsylvania driver’s manual, and I read that thing dozens of times, memorizing such arcane rules as how far you should park your car from a fire hydrant (15 feet in Pennsylvania).  I passed my vision test with flying colors, passed the written test on the first try, and got my permit on my 16th birthday.  I have also never looked at the PA driver’s manual again since spring 1991, until today when I found it online.

According to a study from LeaseTrader.com, I may not be alone.  The company surveyed 500 men and women who had at least five years of driving experience to ask each of them ten sample questions from written driving exams across the country.  The result:  those with the most driving experience (over 20 years, like me) scored nearly 18 percent lower than younger drivers.  Men got 59 percent of their answers correct, while women got just 46 percent correct.

Some of the examples cited in LeaseTrader’s press relase, however, are questionable.  They contend

Men had the most difficult time answering a question addressing the procedure for approaching a stopped school bus on the other side of a divided highway. While most men said you should watch for children and be ready to stop, the correct answer is stop and wait until flashing red lights are off.

However, page 57 of the PA Driver’s Manual says (with my emphasis added)

There is only one exception to the school bus stopping requirement. If you are approaching a school bus that is stopped with its red lights flashing and stop arm extended and you are driving on the opposite side of a divided highway, (i.e. concrete/metal barriers, guide rails or trees/rocks/streams/grass median), you do not have to stop. Reduce your speed and continue driving with caution.

I have been involved in two at-fault accidents during my 20 years on the road.  In the first, I was 16 and was driving too fast for conditions around a curve, and wound up in a field.  That accident happened when I had my license for just four months.  In the second, I pulled out from a stop sign into an oncoming car that I couldn’t see.  I was 20 years old when that happened.  That means that it’s been 16 years since I’ve been to blame for a car crash (knock on wood!)

Is it a coincidence that I had two accidents during the first 20 percent of my driving life (when I was driving far, far fewer miles than I do today) and no accidents during the remaining 80 percent of my time on the road?  I really doubt it.

If only there was a way to combine the book knowledge and physical gifts (perfect vision, cat-like reflexes) of 16 year olds with the experience and maturity of those of us with more experience on the road (I’m probably around 400,000 miles – or more – lifetime so far, and there are people who drive much, much more than I do).

LeaseTrader’s study brings up a valid point, but I don’t believe that simple knowledge of the appropriate speed limit on primary and secondary tate and federal highways is really the mark of the safest driver, considering that 99 percent of the time, speed limits are clearly marked (it’s 55 MPH, by the way).  Then there’s the whole issue of older drivers; we noted last November that 72 million Baby Boomers are beginning to hit age 65, and that the NTSB has identified that group as also a potential hazard to other motorists.

Let’s recap.  Young drivers are inexperienced.  Drivers in their thirties and forties forget the rules of the road.  Older drivers lose their vision and reflexes, and probably forgot even more rules of the road.  So is anyone safe on the road?  There is no silver bullet.  Young drivers need more rigorous licensing requirements, drivers my age should probably have some sort of refresher requirement every decade or two, and older drivers need to be evaluated carefully (and frequently) once they hit a certain age, like 65, for vision, reflexes, and the like.

Personally, athough I haven’t taken a written driver’s exam in 20 years, I feel as if I know nearly all of the rules of the road – at least the important ones.  Safe driving is more than just knowing the rules – it’s actually following them, and hoping that your fellow motorists do as well.  I think most of us would be dishonest if we were to say that we always follow every rule of the road to the letter; never speeding, always yielding at the right time, etc.  Meanwhile, our cars are adding ever-more safety equipment to take the most dangerous part of the car – “the nut behind the wheel” – out of the equation as much as possible.  Cars might be safer when that happens, but the joy of driving will also have disappeared.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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