Maryland motorists might not be the nation's worst, but they seem to be close contenders.

The state's drivers scored third from the bottom this year in an annual written test of knowledge of the rules of the road, according to GMAC Insurance.

Maryland drivers placed 49th out of 51 in the company's seventh annual National Driver's Test, with a score of 73.3 percent, trailing only Hawaii (73 percent) and the basement-dwelling District of Columbia. Rounding out the Feckless Five were New Jersey in 48th and Massachusetts in 47th place.

Leading the pack was repeat champion Kansas, where the 82.9 percent score was 5 points above the national average. Following close behind were Iowa, Colorado and Minnesota. Oregon, Nebraska, Indiana and Missouri tied for fifth.

According to GMAC, the numbers indicate that one-fifth of U.S. drivers — about 37 million motorists — are unfit to drive.

How important the results are in terms of actual traffic safety is unclear. In terms of actual road deaths, Maryland is far from the bottom. And even a GMAC representative agreed that the survey is subject to sampling errors.

Maryland's race to the bottom this year followed a 2010 in which it was one of the success stories of what GMAC calls "the benchmark for America's driving IQ." Last year, Maryland soared to 20th place after placing 41st in 2009. Its 29-place plunge in the rankings this year was exceeded only by Alaska, which dropped from 10th to 40th place. But Maryland's percentage-point decline was even greater, at 4.9.

Scott Eckman, chief marketing officer for GMAC, said it's hard to believe the education level of Marylanders has fluctuated so wildly from year to year. He said that individual state scores can change with sampling variations but that regional performance remains consistent over time.

"It is interesting that the Midwest states always do better and the Northeastern states always do more poorly," he said. In the most recent survey, the Midwest was the highest-scoring region and the Northeast the lowest.

The annual survey polled 5,130 drivers ages 16 to 65 from across the country, asking 20 questions taken from each state's driver's license exam. Nationwide, motorists improved their average score from 76.2 percent to 77.9 percent.

In terms of outright failures, New York and the District of Columbia took the lead for that dubious honor. In both jurisdictions, 34 percent received less than a 70 percent passing grade. Wyoming, where only one in 20 didn't get a 70 or above, had the smallest percentage of failures.

Eckman said the nationwide results indicate that U.S. drivers "are forgetting some of the basic rules of the road."

The most frequently missed question, according to Eckman, had to do with how to respond when a stoplight turns yellow just as a car is reaching an intersection. He said that only 15 percent answered correctly that the driver should continue through rather than abruptly braking.

Some drivers expressed skepticism about the significance of the results. Ron Miller, a personal injury attorney, said that he sees the worst results of bad driving in his practice and that they are seldom the result of ignorance.

"The extent to which we know the driving laws is of very little consequence," he said.

Miller, of the law firm of Miller & Zois in Glen Burnie, said "bad choices" such as drunken driving and distracted driving are the main causes of injuries.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com