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Do drivers know the rules of the road?

Less than half of surveyed drivers rated their knowledge of traffic laws, road signs, and adherence to safe driving habits as "very high."

We recently surveyed 599 American drivers to see how much they knew about the rules of the road and to self-assess their driving skills. The results show a clear gap in knowledge when it comes to driving safety, with an opportunity to continue driver education and improve road safety culture.

Key Takeaways

Survey results show inconsistent knowledge of basic driving rules and road signs

In our survey, we asked drivers to identify different signs and rules of the road to see how much they remembered. The results show that drivers know certain signs and rules more than others. Only 37% of surveyed drivers rated their knowledge of roadway laws, signs, and adherence to safe driving habits as "very high."

Respondents performed well on certain road signs, with 94% of drivers recognizing the sign for a lane ending and 88% for a divided highway. Drivers were less knowledgeable about other signs, with 79% of drivers recognizing the sign for a winding road and only 65% recognizing a school crossing sign.

For basic driving rules, results were also mixed. Most drivers (85%) understood how to properly change a lane by signaling and checking the rearview mirror and blind spots before moving over. Only 69% of drivers knew that pedestrians crossing with the light have the right of way. Even fewer drivers (66%) agreed with the rule that crossing a double yellow line is never acceptable. More drivers understood (76%) that orange construction signs and cones on an expressway mean that they should be prepared for workers and equipment ahead.

Questions about how drivers use the left lane showed quite a bit of variance in behavior. Only 16% of drivers reported using the left lane for passing 100% of the time. Thirty-four percent of drivers say they sometimes intentionally stay in the left lane, and when asked if they ever stay in the left lane to punish another driver's poor behavior, 7% admitted to doing so regularly.

State and regional differences can be a factor in driving habits

Some of the inconsistencies in driving rule knowledge could be due to differing state laws. Laws about left lane usage, for example, vary from state to state. Some states prohibit you from driving in the left lane if you are going below the speed limit, while others prohibit driving in the left lane at all unless passing another vehicle.

Driving customs may also vary by region and state. Andrea Haseley, a resident of rural Pennsylvania, finds that driving habits vary from place to place. She regularly drives to Texas and the Southeast to visit friends and family and says she encounters the worst drivers in large cities. Her biggest pet peeve is drivers who come up from behind at high speed and weave in and out of traffic.

Regional differences in our survey showed that more people (21%) in New England reported speeding half the time. In contrast, only 13% of Southerners said they drove above the speed limit 50% of the time. More Southerners than any other region (41%) also rated themselves as following the rules of the road repeatedly. And they use their turn signal more than other regions, with 67% saying they always used their turn signal compared to 59% in the Northeast and West.

Based on their responses to our survey, drivers in the South may be more likely to know and follow the rules. And they've had fewer accidents too, with 86% of Southerners saying they haven't had an accident in the last five years.

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The challenges of adjusting to driving in America

Fourteen percent of drivers in our survey were like Kiki Williams, residents who moved from another country and repeatedly had to learn new driving rules. Williams is a Boston resident who moved to the U.S. from Bangkok, Thailand, 11 years ago. For American drivers, using a stop sign might not seem too challenging, but Williams says there are so many rules that it can be confusing if you didn't learn how to drive here. She failed her first driving test because she did not stop at a stop sign properly. "Sometimes, I'm still not sure at a stop sign who should go first," she says.

In addition to learning stop sign rules, Williams says other challenges included driving on the right side of the road and using the U.S. measurement system (miles instead of kilometers).

Still, drivers from other countries fared about as well as native U.S. drivers in our survey, despite adjusting to new driving customs, measurements, signs, and laws. Perhaps it's because about half of them relied on an official driving education course to learn the rules of the road. After failing her first road test, Williams ended up taking a course to make sure she could pass the test on her second try.

The importance of keeping up with updated driving rules

Many surveyed drivers aren't keeping up with evolving safety recommendations. Thirty-four percent of respondents took a driving test more than 20 years ago, and 83% learned to drive from their parents/guardians, family members, or friends. Such large gaps in education can leave drivers with outdated knowledge.

For example, 10 and 2 were once considered the proper hand positions on the steering wheel. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) now recommends 9 and 3 because it's much safer to have your hands in this position when an airbag deploys. Only 20% of respondents in our survey knew that 9 and 3 is the correct hand position — a clear gap in knowledge of current safe driving practices.

Are drivers too optimistic about their skills?

Drivers can experience a psychological phenomenon called optimism bias. According to one landmark study, "Research suggests that people are excessively and unrealistically optimistic when judging their driving competency and accident risk."

Our survey may show this bias in action. For example, males who drive trucks are more likely to claim they follow the rules of the road 100% of the time. Yet, they lag in knowing almost all the rules we surveyed, including the proper way to change lanes and the meaning of double and broken lane lines. They were also the most likely to report having had a wreck in the last five years.

Pam Fischer of the Governors Highway Safety Administration (GHSA) agrees that if you ask someone whether they're a good driver, most of the time, they'll say yes. "They all think they're really good drivers, but are they a safe driver?" Fischer points out that being a safe driver is about following the rules of the road and keeping safety top of mind.

How do I become a better driver?

Fischer says there are some key things you can do to be safer: buckle up, don't speed, never drink and drive, avoid distractions, get enough sleep, and call each other out. "If you're sitting in a passenger seat and your spouse or friend picks up the phone, call them out. Tell them, 'Hey, I don't feel safe.'"

To brush up on the rules of the road, Fischer also recommends taking a defensive driving course. Not only does it teach you how to drive safely, but a course may also help reduce your auto insurance rate with a defensive driving discount.

To improve your driving habits, you can enroll in a usage-based car insurance program like Progressive's Snapshot. These insurance programs use mobile apps to measure your driving for events like hard braking, speeding, and distracted driving. Reviewing your driving habits can help you be more mindful of how you behave on the road. Safe driving habits can also lower your auto insurance rate.

No matter what you do, following the rules of the road and avoiding aggressive driving, tailgating, and other risky behaviors behind the wheel can make you and the roads safer.

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