LONDON -- The question has been around for years, but in these days of political correctness, few dare to ask it: Who drives better, men or women?
To some, the question is regarded as illegitimate because if men and women are thought generally to have equal abilities, how can they be differentiated when it comes to something so everyday as driving a car?
Not to be intimidated by U.S. social trends, Britain's largest automobile insurance company, Norwich Union, spent a lot of money and time trying to find an answer to the question.
In June, the company, which insures more than 1.2 million motorists throughout the United Kingdom, announced that it
would drop its rates, by up to 25 percent, for some female drivers, discriminating in favor of women just as insurance companies do in the United States.
So far, no women or feminist groups have complained publicly about being patronized.
A spokesman for Norwich Union said its survey of more than a thousand drivers showed that 76 percent of the women had not filed a claim against the company in three years. The overwhelming majority of the claims were made by men.
The survey contained some other revelations. One was that male drivers account for 99 percent of the reckless driving charges brought by the police. They also have 93 percent of the speeding charges and 95 percent of the cases of driving while under the influence of alcohol.
"We've known about this for a long time," said John Garner of Norwich Union. Thesurvey simply confirmed it. Women have fewer accidents. Fewer accidents mean fewer claims; fewer claims mean great savings for Norwich Union.
"Women drive less miles," said Mr. Garner. "They drive smaller cars [which means repairs are not so costly]. They avoid hazardous conditions, ice and fog. They are generally less aggressive."
Does that make them better drivers?
Not necessarily, though it does seem to prove them to be safer drivers. John Woolterton, Norwich Union's assistant general manager for personal insurance, was quoted by the Times as follows: "Our statistics show that lady motorists . . . are better risks."
Mike Fitzgerald is none too pleased with all this. He finds female drivers perhaps a little too timid, distracted much of the time and lacking road courtesy.
"That's just my personal opinion," said Mr. Fitzgerald, head of Fitzgerald & Co., also auto insurers. "I don't have any statistics of my own," he added, "but when I had my own auto fleet I found the women drivers had more accidents than the men. But they had the smaller accidents, the scratches and the scrapes. They did not drive as fast as men."
He said that in his experience, women, by and large, "don't coordinate the car properly and don't understand the mechanics of the thing."
Teresa Varani, an instructor at the Holburn School of Motoring in Central London, tends to agree with Mr. Fitzgerald, but only up to a point. "Women have all those bumper bangers because they are often distracted," she said. But she doubts that men continue to understand the machine better. "The younger women these days seem to go out of their way to learn about the car," she said.
Paul Martin, an instructor for Inter County Driving Schools, thinks that the discussion is beside the point. "There is no difference [in driving skills] between men and women as groups," he said. Age is the determinant.
"The older you get, the more sober you get."
Mr. Fitzgerald has been in the insurance business for a long time -- too long, to hear him tell it. Life on the road, he says, has gotten distinctly worse.
"We've got people out there who just shouldn't be allowed to drive," he said.
Having handled thousands of claims, his judgment is that the worst drivers on Britain's roads today are the truck drivers, the so-called "professionals."
He laughs at the term. And since the overwhelming majority of them are men, that, it seems, should settle the question.