The next time you're stopped in traffic, look to your right. And then to your left.
At least one of you could not pass a written driver's test.
Nearly half of the 500 drivers who took a quiz of 20 driver's test questions failed to get a passing score of 80 percent, according to results released today by CarInsurance.com.
The questions, drawn from state practice tests, covered basics such as signs and rights of way. The questions missed most often involved when to stop for school buses and pedestrians. (You can take the Driver's License Quiz for yourself to see how you compare.)
Women averaged a score of 78 percent, compared with 71 percent for men. And experience seems to help: Drivers under age 40 scored an average of 67 percent correct, and those over 40 scored an average of 79 percent.
Only three drivers had perfect scores: two women and one man.
A brief history of driver's licenses
The driver's license is almost as old as the car itself.
It is widely accepted that Karl Benz, of Mercedes-Benz fame and the man credited with inventing the modern automobile, was issued the first driver's license in 1888 in Mannheim, Germany.
In the United States, the first driver's licenses were simple identification cards. A license could be had for 25 cents, and in many states drivers could send away for one by mail. There were no required skills or knowledge tests. (Here's a look at Henry Ford's driver's license, circa 1919.)
According to the Federal Highway Administration, Missouri and Massachusetts issued the first driver's licenses in 1903 but didn't start testing drivers' skills until years later. Massachusetts waited until 1920 and Missouri started testing in 1952.
South Dakota was the last holdout, waiting until 1954 to require drivers to have licenses. It introduced testing in 1959.
U.S testing is comparatively easy
In the last decade, graduated driver licensing systems have changed the process of getting a license for every teen driver in the country, but the test itself has basically stayed the same.
A 2011 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report declares the overall testing process "weak," especially compared with that in other nations. (See "Are U.S. teens the world's worst-trained drivers?")
On average, the knowledge portion of a state test is 25 questions long and takes about 25 minutes to complete. Minimum passing requirements range from 70 to 85 percent correct with the average being 79 percent.
Despite the relatively simple tests, U.S. failure rates are eye-opening. (Only 13 states were able to provide actual numbers to the NHTSA, while the rest were estimated by DMV officials.)
Missouri recorded a whopping 61.4 percent failure rate on the written portion of its test. Mississippi was a close second at an even 60 percent, and Florida rounded out the top three with a failure rate of 58.1 percent. Most states allow a driver who fails the written test to retake it after a one-day wait; the wait to retake a failed road test could be anywhere from one day to 30 days.
For many, it's a challenge
The NHTSA report found that driving tests are quite similar in most states, but a few were deemed easier or harder than the norm, based on failure rates for written and road tests and a survey of drivers in each state who had just taken the examinations. If you are looking for an easier test, head to Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas or West Virginia. If you like a challenge, Connecticut, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Tennessee are where you want to be.
Experts point to poor preparation and overconfidence as the culprits behind failure.
Rajendra Hariprashad, owner of Ena's Driving School in New York City, says poor study habits will often lead to a failed written test. He advises reading the state's road rules manual cover to cover and taking numerous practice tests. (Check your state's DMV.) Take time to learn the material -- and wait until you are prepared before scheduling a test.
If you've left the DMV disappointed, consider that:
- Cha Sa-soon, 69, took South Korea's written driving test 960 times before she finally passed and was given her license. She holds the world record for most attempts at a driving test.
- You've got your whole life to pass. Edythe Kirchmaier recently passed her driving test, making her the oldest driver in California at age 105.
- And you can be a success without a license. NASCAR star Kyle Busch competed while his license was suspended for doing 128 mph in a 45 mph zone.
But wait, there's good news
Once you've got that laminated piece of plastic in your wallet, you're in. A failed driving test will not show up on your driving record, so your car insurance company has no way of knowing that you were clueless about parallel parking.
Failure itself could become a thing of the past because future drivers may never take a DMV test. Many experts believe that autonomous cars (driverless vehicles) will rule the roads in the future. Do you need a driver's license when the car drives itself?
Futurist Thomas Frey, executive director at the DaVinci Institute, predicts that while the driver's license will survive in a different form, written and practical driving tests will disappear.
"Today's driver's license will morph into a national ID, which you will use to access driverless vehicles, and other services," Frey says. "You may have to swipe it to prove your identity to the robot delivery driver before they will release your package; it could be used for medical identification and to pay for items."