Women make better drivers

Are women bad drivers, or just the victims of a sexist slur? The stats tell an interesting story.

A few years ago an SAA plane got stuck in the sand when it left a runway at Cape Town International Airport. Many people chuckled knowingly when you found out the pilot was a woman.

Then it would surprise you to find out that men have a 77% higher chance of dying in a car accident than women do (based on the distance driven). This may be the reason why some insurance companies charge higher premiums for car insurance for men than they do for women.

But is this justified? Are women better or worse drivers than men are? And what about gender and spatial perception? Or just plain discrimination?

It's all about perception
There is a general perception that women and old people make bad drivers. Many people who see a driver weaving through the traffic, talking on a cell phone, or managing to crash into a stationary car will simply assume that there is a woman behind the steering wheel, or that the driver is ancient. While this may very well be the case, the stats tell an interesting story.

The first things that become apparent when taking a look at international stats are that men are certainly involved in a greater number of serious accidents. Testosterone and a tendency to get involved in road-rage incidents may be to blame. Men also tend to drive at higher speeds than women do, studies say. Women, however, seem to specialise in fender-benders.

Interesting SA stats
In the year 2005, SA women were involved in a total of 132 851 accidents involving all vehicles and men in a total of 581 6198, so roughly a ratio of just under 1 : 5. These stats were provided by the Road Traffic Management Corporation of South Africa.

In accidents involving normal motor cars, the ratio went down to about 1 : 4, but in all other accidents involving tricycles, minibuses, motorcycles, animal-drawn vehicles, heavy trucks, bicycles, delivery vehicles, tractors and taxis, the male drivers beat the women to the post by a huge margin (1:10 in the case of delivery vehicles and 1:22 in the case of large motorcycles).

This could, however, merely be a reflection of the fact that men are often more economically active in sectors that require driving.

Gender and spatial perception
Many studies have been conducted on gender and spatial perception. But before you assume that men do better on this one and women are better at multitasking and communicating, it might be interesting to give a little more detail. In short, it is not that simple.

While men generally do better than women when it comes to paper-and-pen tasks and tasks that involve judging the speed and anticipated position of moving targets on screen, women equal men in solving problems that require multiple steps for solution, and in solving 3D-problems on screen.

Many researchers have pointed out that boys have more experience with activities that contribute to the development of spatial skills, and that they are encouraged to explore their environments more widely than girls are. So the whole issue boils down to whether spatial perception is an innate quality boys have, or whether socialisation of girls discourages this sort of behaviour.

Interestingly enough, laboratory training increases pen-and-paper special perception in both girls and boys (Beanninger and Newcombe 1989), which does point to socialisation being to blame rather an innate lack of ability in girls. If they just couldn't do it, no amount of laboratory training would make a difference.

So next time you hear your pilot speaking, and it’s a woman, less of the mock-alarm sniggers please. You’re in safe – and probably better manicured – hands.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated July 2012)

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