Men or women: Who are the worst drivers?

Mark Henricks

Women drivers! Men drivers! Who’s worse? Don’t look to science for an answer.

Spanish researcher David Herrero, an expert on aggressive driving, sums up the gender-related research in his area of specialty. “There are some studies that show men are angrier than women, although the size of this effect is small,” Herrero says. Other studies "suggest that there are no differences by gender: Men have a similar propensity to experience anger behind the wheel.”

Gender fender-benders

However, a new study of the effect of gender on crashes suggests that sometimes women are more likely to crash into other women -- but not other men. What’s going on?

Research on car crashes shows three main factors make a driver likely to hit another vehicle. First, the driver has to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Second, the driver’s skill plays a role. Third is the other driver’s skill level. How drivers of different genders might react to each other is largely uncharted territory.

Understanding gender interactions among drivers was the goal of research described in a new study from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. The findings were surprising.

In some situations, there were more female-to-female wrecks, while male-to-male crashes were underrepresented. However, when female drivers ran into male drivers or males crashed into females, the frequencies were about what was expected.

What’s the deal here? Professor Michael Sivak, the lead researcher in the University of Michigan study, is hesitant to jump to conclusions. He says the results could be attributed to men driving more often in the cited scenarios. Or it could linked to differences in men’s and women’s behind-the-wheel capabilities in certain circumstances. Finally, it could be connected to differences in what drivers expect other drivers to do based on gender.

The lack of information on "gender exposure" on scenarios, skills and expectations "prevents ruling out any of these possible explanations,” Sivak writes.

Battle of the sexes

But the study does raise some tantalizing possibilities.

The researchers picked half a dozen scenarios of two-vehicle crashes in which one driver could possibly tell whether the other driver was male or female beforehand. One scenario involved a driver going down a straight road when another driver merges with traffic from the right. Another involved a driver going straight and having someone approaching from the right and turning left in front of the vehicle.

These last two examples -- involving a driver approaching from the right as at a road intersection and either turning left or going right in the same direction as the original driver -- were the two where women were most likely to collide with other females. The difference was significant: an increase of roughly 50 percent more than would be expected and what was found when male-female and male-male configurations were examined.

Gender-based expectations may explain the difference. Sivak says that what we expect other drivers to do can affect our ability to avoid a crash. For instance, we might not be surprised if a sports car weaves through traffic, but we wouldn’t expect a minivan to do that.

So it could be that women are not as skillful at predicting what other women drivers are going to do.

“From our study, we cannot tell whether female drivers attempt certain maneuvers more frequently in front of other female drivers or whether they are less skillful in such interactions,” Sivak says. “Future research should try to evaluate these two different hypotheses.”

Are men really rotten drivers?

One hypothesis this report doesn’t support is that women overall are worse drivers. In fact, numerous studies indicate that men are, in some ways, significantly worse.

The United Kingdom's Elephant insurance company recently reviewed 200,000 insurance claims and concluded that accidents for males under age 25 end up costing 15 percent more than those involving women of the same age. For drivers of all ages, the cost of accidents involving male drivers was 6 percent higher.

An older study from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute looked at nationwide data to figure how many crashes occurred for each mile traveled. Among other things, it showed men were at higher risk than women of being in a fatal crash. Women, on the other hand, were more likely to be involved in injury crashes and in any crash reported to police.

What's happening here? A University of Georgia study in the 1990s focused on differences in the way males and females saw the risk of getting in a wreck. Males were generally more optimistic, especially when evaluating their own skill at driving, the study found. Males also tended to regard risky driving behaviors as less serious and less likely to end in a wreck.

With all these possible effects on the plate, along with current concerns about texting and distracted driving, one explanation that keeps coming up is the one this article began with. That is, you have to be present to win. You have to be on the road to start with if you’re going to have a wreck.

Another Michigan study from the 1990s modeled the effect of four significant variables -- driver age, gender, time of day, and average annual mileage -- on crash involvement rates. Their conclusion was that women’s tendency to drive less than men explained their higher involvement in non-fatal injury crashes.

Does that mean practice makes perfect? Don’t jump to conclusions.

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