The Goods : A Crash Course on Gender and Driving

TIMES STAFF WRITER

W omen drivers!

Men drivers!

It's an old lament that the opposite sex is somehow genetically flawed behind the wheel.

As with so many differences between men and women, however, much is misunderstood about their driving.

Women do tend to have an overall higher accident rate for each mile they drive, while men tend to be involved in a higher rate of fatal accidents.

What's going on? The experts are not quite sure.

According to a study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, women drivers had a rate of 2.3 injury accidents for every million miles, while men had a rate of 1.8 accidents per million miles, based on 1990 data.

That translates into a higher probability that you will be whacked by a woman driver while minding your own business on the road than by a male driver. But what it does not suggest to all those smug sexists is that male drivers are any better.

Dawn Massie, a researcher at the University of Michigan, believes women's higher accident rate is explained at least in part by their lower rate of driving. In general, the best drivers are those who drive the most, and women generally drive less than men.

On average, men drive 12,508 miles per year while women drive 7,116. About 92% of men are licensed to drive, while 85% of women are licensed. The lower rates of licensing and driving presumably reflect women's lower participation in the work force, but nobody is really sure.

Because women generally have lower incomes than men, another factor might be that they are less able to afford cars, insurance and fuel than men are and thus rely more on public transportation.

In addition, Massie said, women may drive more of their miles on urban streets, where accident rates are generally higher. But because national accident data is not statistically broken down this way, nobody is sure.

Based on these results, it might be expected that women would also be more involved in fatal accidents. But the research institute found that male drivers have a rate of 3.5 fatal accidents for every 100 million miles, compared to 2.2 fatals for women drivers, a fairly significant statistical gap.

Massie found that generally higher alcohol consumption by men explains only part of the gap. Even if all the alcohol-related accidents are excluded, men still have a higher fatality rate. The explanation Massie offers goes right to heart of how men drive.

"Compared to female drivers, men are more prone to speed, drive aggressively, go through yellow lights and accept shorter gaps when entering the traffic stream," Massie said. "It seems plausible that men's higher fatal involvement rate is partially due to men's increased propensity to drive in a risky manner."

Some research suggests that male drivers have quicker reaction times than do female drivers, but when additional factors such as night driving or slick roads enter the equation, those reaction times are not enough to avoid serious accidents.

The good news is that both men and women's accident rates have declined appreciably since the 1980s.

"People are driving more than ever, and fatal rates are the lowest they have been in the last 30 years," Massie said.

The bad news is that women are becoming more like men in a lot of respects, including the tendency to drink and drive. Alcohol-involved traffic accidents for women are growing somewhat, although they are still lower than those for men, Massive noted.

* Your Wheels is published every other Friday.

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