A YouTube search for "female driver" yields more than 3,000 results: You can watch women drivers shearing off gas pumps, veering into swimming pools and destroying every car in the vicinity while attempting to parallel park. Another woman manages to roll her car on to its roof pulling into a driveway.
A similar search, this time for "male driver," pulls up just 348 videos - about one-tenth as many. Why are there so few videos about bad male drivers - and so many featuring women? Do women actually produce more camera-worthy driving disasters? Are women worse drivers than men?
According to a new Harris-Decima poll, Canadians think the answer is yes. When asked who was better at driving, 36 per cent of those polled said men were. A lower number (29 per cent) thought women were the best drivers.
The poll also suggests that age-old prejudices live on, largely due to the male tendency to consider himself better equipped for the road: Some 48 per cent of the men polled said they were superior drivers - but only 25 per cent of the women respondents said they were better.
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But the question remains: Is one sex really better behind the wheel than the other?
Driving experts say there are differences, but that doesn't mean men (or women) are superior. "There is still a perception that men are better drivers, even though there's no basis for it," says Kelly Williams, an automotive consultant and racing driver who has spent her career competing against men. "Driving is a skill-based activity. The car doesn't know whether the foot on the gas pedal belongs to a man or a woman."
Although she dismissed the notion that either sex is better at driving, Ms. Williams says she has noticed some general differences between men and women in her role as a high-performance driving instructor. "Women are less willing to push it," she says. "But they take instruction better. They're willing to admit when they don't know something."
Researchers have found differences between men and women's driving abilities. Tom Vanderbilt, the author of a book called Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), cites a study at Germany's Ruhr University-Bochum, where male and female drivers of varying experience levels were asked to park an Audi A6 in various ways (including backing into a spot and parallel parking) in a closed-off parking garage.
"They found that women took longer to park the car than men," Mr. Vanderbilt says. "This might be seen as a result of the general tendency for men to take more risks in driving than women (e.g., men drive faster, closer to other vehicles, more often without seat belts, more often under the influence of alcohol), but there was another interesting result: Even though men parked more quickly, they also parked more accurately, as measured by distance to neighbouring cars."
Vanderbilt says the studies can't be used to conclude that men are better drivers, only that they have different strengths and weaknesses than women. "Male drivers have, in some cases, been shown to be more technically proficient," he says. "For example, for young drivers taking the in-car portion of the driving test in the U.K., young males do statistically better than young female drivers. However, who goes on to be statistically more involved in serious crashes? Those same 'better' young male drivers."
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Vanderbilt notes (as our poll suggests) that men tend to have an inflated sense of their driving abilities. "They often declare themselves to be above-average drivers," he says, "and use it to get into more trouble."
Statistics collected by insurance companies and federal safety regulators consistently reveal gender-based differences in driving behaviour. Women are more likely to be involved in accidents based on slips or lapses (like distracted driving) while men are more likely to have accidents based on deliberate or risk-taking behaviour (such as speeding). One insurance company determined that men were 3.4 times more likely than women to be cited for aggressive driving. And when men were involved in crashes, they were 27 per cent more likely than women to be considered at fault (the result of riskier driving).
After studying years worth of traffic data, researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh determined that men are more than twice as likely to die in a car crash as women. Although men drive more than women do (approximately 60 per cent more, on average) their risk of a serious crash is still higher on a per-mile basis. Researchers found that women took shorter trips than men, and had a higher number of minor accidents. But men are 70 per cent more likely to be involved a serious crash.
Vanderbilt says these gender-based differences can't be used to conclude that either sex is better behind the wheel. As a group, men seem to have the edge when it comes to car handling, but women appear to have better judgment. Vanderbilt says the end result is a wash: "I would humbly suggest that, in a bid to improve safety on the roads, we dispense with the idea that women are not as good at driving than men," he says. "But we also need to do away with the idea that men are better drivers than women. Both stereotypes are unflattering, and not strictly true."
The Harris-Decima poll, which questioned 1,000 drivers across the country, serves as a snapshot of Canadian driving habits and attitudes. Questions about gender-based driving behaviour clearly struck a nerve - 35 per cent of poll respondents refused to answer when asked whether men or women were better drivers.
Tim Falconer, a writer who explored the world of cars and roads in a book called Drive - A Road Trip Through Our Complicated Affair With the Automobile, says he isn't surprised. "The stereotype of the woman driver is disappearing," he says. "But it's still there to some degree, and it's insulting. I know lots of women who are better drivers than I am."
As Falconer notes, the incompetent female driver is a stereotype that dates back to a time when women weren't allowed to vote. Today, driving is a unisex activity, and the sight of a woman behind the wheel is anything but a novelty. Some have wondered why so few women are involved in motorsports - despite a few high-profile female exceptions (like Indy car racer Danica Patrick and former Top Fuel dragster champion Shirley Muldowney), car racing is an almost universally male activity.
Williams, who spent more than a decade competing against men in stock car racing, says woman are theoretically equal to men on the race track, but encounter an overwhelming cultural obstacle when they enter the world of competition driving: "Everyone in the sport is male," she says. "That makes it a lot harder for a woman to get into the racing world. The culture mitigates against them."
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