It’s a typical slow-news-day kind of story – are men or women drivers better? There have been numerous ‘reports’ that suggest one way or the other, based on various (usually questionable) criteria. In fact, since contemplating this blog in the last week, I’ve already read three different articles which question the relative merits of males and females behind the wheel. But can we really say that women are better drivers than men or vice versa?
In short, no we can’t. There is no physical reason why men and women should drive differently. Years ago, before power steering and automatic transmissions, you could have made an argument than men coped better with the physicality of driving, but that has not been the case for a long time now.
Usually debates about the merits of men and women behind the wheel revolve around invalid assumptions or highly selective statistics. And while there might be no physical reason why men and women drivers should be any different, The Car Expert has seen plenty of male and female drivers over the years to suggest that there are differences, and suggests some reasons.
Firstly, while it is technically correct that “men have more car accidents than women” and “men get more speeding fines than women”, it is less of an issue when you take into consideration that there are far more men on the road than women, and they also tend to drive longer distances. So in percentage terms, the number of men getting caught for speeding and having accidents is not so different to women.
There are other factors at play as well – although before you start with the hate mail, bear in mind that these are generalisations, and based on many years of observations and anecdotal evidence rather than objective scientific data:
- when couples (one man, one woman) travel together, it is more likely that the man will drive. On longer journeys, the man usually does more of the driving than the woman.
- The above is even more true when conditions are more difficult (night, rain, snow, etc.) or they are in unfamiliar territory.
- Single-occupant cars are far more likely to be men. Women drivers are more highly represented in cars with passengers, largely because they still share a larger load of chauffeuring the kids around than men do. This also has a massive bearing on driving styles, as will be discussed below.
- Men and women tend to choose different types of cars, and men are also more likely to go for a higher-performance model of a certain car while women are less concerned about it. That at least partly explains the speeding tickets!
- In social terms, cars tend to be a ‘guy thing’, which often means male drivers feel an expectation among their male peers to be competent drivers, with the result that bravado can often exceed actual ability. Women are less concerned about each others’ driving abilities as a measure of their standing as a human being, resulting in less bravado or showing off among friends.
- Driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs seems to be a male-dominated activity. For whatever social or psychological reasons, men are more likely to choose to drive when they know they have drunk too much than women.
- The only significant physical difference I have observed between men and women behind the wheel is that more women drivers have problems with spatial awareness than men (most evident in parking or negotiating narrow gaps)
Confidence is King (or Queen)
After years of watching other people test driving cars at dealerships, the single most important difference between men and women drivers seems to be confidence. Men, on the whole, seem to be more confident behind the wheel than women. This doesn’t mean that men are likely to have more or fewer accidents than women, but it does tend to mean they have different accidents. Having confidence makes you decisive, which means lots of good decisions and some bad ones, and more behaviour which may be considered ‘risky’. Lacking confidence means you tend to be indecisive, which means fewer good decisions, more bad decisions and often a lack of decision which moves a situation out of your control. However, it also makes your behaviour more ‘risk-averse’.
This difference in confidence leads to a difference in how drivers approach every aspect of their driving. For example, a more confident driver is more likely to travel at a faster speed, sit closer to the car in front (including tailgating), and continue driving under more pressure or in more difficult conditions (such as heavy rain or tiredness) rather than stopping. A less confident driver is more likely to hesitate at intersections and roundabouts, send unclear signals to other drivers about changing lanes and follow satnav directions rather than local signs or using their own judgment. Each of these situations can lead to an accident in the right circumstances.
As a car sales executive for many years, I got to sit alongside hundreds of complete strangers driving unfamiliar cars on unfamiliar roads, and it was confidence that dominated how the test drive went. Males, usually being more confident, would jump into the driver’s seat and go with much less hesitation than women. Often there was an element of bravado and even self-imposed pressure not to look like a bad driver in front of someone who saw lots of drivers (not that I actually cared, unless I was worried for my own safety!), especially among younger male drivers. With less confident drivers, usually but not always women, there would be much more hesitation, instant and abrupt following of instructions (eg – “change lanes somewhere along this road” would lead to an immediate lane change rather than a considered ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’ at an appropriate time), and often apologies for their “bad driving”. My job was part-driving coach and part-salesman in managing people’s driving behaviour by encouraging them to relax or warning them to slow down as required!
Baby On Board
Having kids on board usually causes a dramatic change in driving behaviour as well. Even the most ‘risk-taking’ drivers become a lot more ‘risk-averse’ as soon as the child seats go in. Although having said that, kids can be very distracting passengers, which leads to a whole different range of risks. The effect of other passengers varies depending on the demographic of the driver and passengers; young male drivers with their young male mates on board tend to take more risks than when they are on their own, whereas if a young male is driving his mother or grandmother, he tends to be far more careful. Women drivers appear more likely to be distracted by conversations with their passengers than men. Unfortunately there is very little scientific research available to develop these observations.
So, are women drivers any better or worse than men?
All of the above is based on my own observations, and generalisations based on my own years of experience. I could go on for hours with more anecdotal opinions about the differences between men and women drivers behind the wheel, but although there are clear differences between the average male and average female driver, I think that it pretty much balances out overall, and most drivers of both sexes could do with some more driver training and education – although men are less likely to admit that ;)
But what do you think? Please leave your thoughts below. Do you think women drivers are ‘safer drivers’ than men? Or are men ‘better drivers’ than women?