Not everything they say about New Jersey is true. The attitude is largely superficial. California has far more malls. And the Jersey Devil was probably just a large weasel.

The terrible driving, however, is a fact.

According to a recent survey, the trouble with the way New Jerseyans drive is fairly simple: They don't know how.

The survey, by GMAC Insurance, found that about 4 in 10 New Jersey motorists failed a test of basic driver knowledge. Their rate of failure, 39.9 percent, was the highest among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

New Jerseyans' average score on the exam, 70.5 percent, was the second worst in the country, with only New Yorkers scoring lower. Nor was this just an off year for the state. It also ranked 50th out of 51 in last year's survey, and dead last the year before.

Pennsylvania and Delaware had middling rankings (39th and 25th, respectively), while the best average score was Kansas', at 82.3 percent. Northeastern drivers in general were the most ignorant, while Midwesterners were the most informed.

GMAC's test consisted of standard multiple-choice questions from state driver exams. In other words, no one had to know how to rebuild a transmission. Still, it's easy to see how some of the questions might have tripped up the average Jersey driver.

For example, if a pedestrian is crossing outside a crosswalk, what should a motorist do? The right answer is "Stop and let the pedestrian cross" - not "Hit the gas and scream, 'Hey, I'm drivin' here!' "

A safe following distance under most conditions turns out to be three seconds - not three millimeters. And a car should be made more visible in bad weather by turning on the headlights - not painting flames along its sides.

Of course, it's easy to laugh at Jersey drivers (when you're not being terrified by them). But the survey has serious policy implications.

For example, in a series of additional questions about driving behavior, a quarter of participants admitted to engaging in cell-phone use and other distractions. "Only" 5 percent admitted to texting while driving, which sounds like enough to wreak havoc. That's more reason for states to start imposing real restrictions on drivers' use of gizmos, and to stop making fine distinctions about how many hands they require.

The survey also found that older motorists were more knowledgeable than younger ones, which suggests more states should follow New Jersey's lead and institute graduated licensing.

More broadly, the survey reveals a crisis in basic driver education - the sort that used to be provided by high schools. Given the indispensability of driving and its dangers, it might be worth restoring its place in the curriculum, especially in the Northeast. Or, as they might put it in New Jersey, learn how to freakin' drive!