CHICAGO -- As all women know, the road to equality is hardly smooth. The latest bump: auto insurance rates.
Insurance companies traditionally have charged lower rates to young women than young men, because young women have far fewer accidents and much less severe ones. That gap is still large, but it has narrowed markedly in the last 15 years.
In 1975, women younger than 21 had 56 percent of the accidents that men of the same age had, according to State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., the nation's biggest auto insurer. For women age 21 and 25 covered by the Bloomington, Ill.-based insurer, the figure was 60 percent.
But by 1990, the accident rate had risen to 66 percent for the youngest women drivers and to 75 percent for 21- to 25-year-olds. The numbers apply to so-called "principal" drivers, who used the car more than half the time.
This trend is eating into young women's preferential rates at many auto insurance companies.
Consider the premium paid to Kemper National Insurance Cos. for a bare-bones auto policy by a single, 18-year-old in Chicago who is a good driver and uses the car only for pleasure: Ten years ago, the cost was $332 a year for a woman and $624, or 88 percent more, for a man. Now, if both are principal drivers, the woman pays $832 and the man pays $1,222, or 47 percent more.
Beyond crunching the numbers, insurance company officials don't have a ready explanation for the pattern.
"We're not playing sociologist to figure it out," said Janet Johnson, Kemper's personal lines rating officer. "This is just what the figures show: The gap is starting to close, and our rates reflect that."
"To be able to understand why the gap is narrowing, you have to understand why the difference exists in the first place," said Mike LaMonica, assistant vice president at Allstate Insurance Co. "We don't think anybody has come up with a concrete explanation."
Yet some experts are willing to tiptoe out on a limb.
"It's a reflection of what happens in society as young women drive more," said William Sirola, a State Farm spokesman.
"They drive under conditions they traditionally have not: They're out in the evenings, they're driving their friends places where 20 years ago it was the boy who always drove."
"I think it would be fair to say young women may be taking more chances," said Fredrick Streff, head of injury analysis and DTC prevention at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute.
"It's part of the trend in society in general to try to have an equal playing ground for men and women," added Mr. Streff, who has a doctorate in psychology. "You get the bad with the good. I've heard it said that part of equal rights means the equal right to be stupid and kill oneself."
It's clear that women are driving more than 15 years ago. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, percent more men than women were licensed to drive in 1975; last year there were only 6 percent more men. On average, women drove 5,585 miles a year, or 48 percent as much as men, in 1969; last year, the figures were 9,371 miles and 59 percent.
Also suggestive are statistics on average claims costs from the Insurance Services Office Inc. in New York that reflect the frequency and severity of accidents. In 1983, the average claims cost for a single 21- to 24-year-old man in a major U.S. city was 25 percent higher than that for the same-age single woman; by 1989, the gap had closed to 4 percent.
The Insurance Services Office, which provides rating information for property and casualty insurers, said that its numbers don't indicate the difference in claims costs between men and women narrowing for the youngest age group.
State Farm's rate changes also show the biggest shift in the young-adult group.
In 1975 in Chicago, single women younger than 21 who were principal drivers paid half of the male rate for a bare-bones auto policy; today they pay 54 percent.
But single women age 21 to 24 paid 53 percent of the male rate in 1975 and now pay 67 percent. "For our business, that's a quantum leap," said Mr. Sirola.
Allstate, a unit of Sears, Roebuck and Co. and the nation's No. 2 auto insurer, has seen a narrowing in the claims-cost gap between young men and young women but hasn't adjusted rates accordingly, Mr. LaMonica said.
The shift might be reflected in next year's rate filings, though it's not clear whether young men will pay less or young women pay more.
Regardless of gender, young people's accident rates are far higher than those of adults. Besides age and sex, insurance companies consider a wide array of factors in setting auto rates, including marital status, use of car, annual driving mileage and driving record.
For example, married women are often lumped together, regardless of age, and rated the same as other adults, including all women older than about 24 and all men over about 29. But insurance companies typically assign higher rates to younger married men than older ones.
Some insurers haven't differentiated between women who were principal or occasional drivers, as they have for men. Kemper began doing so about eight years ago to reflect changing driving patterns, Johnson said.
To the National Organization for Women, which has been pushing for an overhaul of the auto insurance rating system, the rates paid by the youngest women drivers are largely beside the point.
The women's advocacy group maintains that the more you drive, the the more accidents you're likely to have.
Though young women have gotten a break on rates, most adult women pay too much for auto insurance because they are rated the same as adult men while driving much less, NOW contends.
"Women are paying twice as much per mile to get the same protection as men," said Patrick Butler, director of NOW's insurance project in Washington.
A mileage-based rating system also would help poorer and older drivers, who tend to drive less, Ms. Butler said.