Alarming increase in female highway fatalities is noted

June 30, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- The annual average number of women who died on the nation's highways jumped 62 percent from 1975 to 1990, while the number of men who died each year declined about 1 percent, a new government study shows.

The study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said two factors explained much of the increase: There are more women on the road, and they're driving more miles than ever before.

But those changes don't fully explain an increased death rate only among female drivers, said George Parker, the agency's associate administrator.

"Something else has changed for women," Mr. Parker said. "It means they're doing something more dangerous."

That mysterious something is intriguing auto safety researchers, most of whom believe the answers are linked to the changing role of women in society.

Among the possibilities now being investigated: Women are working more and therefore driving in more dangerous rush-hour traffic. Either because of taste or physical size, women drive smaller cars than men, and smaller cars can be more dangerous in certain wrecks. Or women simply might be driving faster and taking more risks behind the wheel.

In other words, they might be driving more like men. Men still are dying at three times the rate of women, but women are catching up fast.

Yet another possibility is that stress levels for men may drop after work, while female stress may continue or even increase because women still handle more household duties. And on the highways, stress means risk.

The government study only hints at the social forces affecting female driving risks.

For instance, female driving mileage rose 200 percent over the 16-year period, while male drivers increased their travel by 94 percent. That could be explained by more women driving to work today than in the 1970s.

But with other factors still uncertain, Carol Popkin, an injury control researcher for North Carolina, hopes the government findings will focus more attention on female drivers.

For decades, researchers often bypassed female drivers in favor of higher-risk targets such as young men, said Ms. Popkin, chairwoman of a group studying female drivers for the National Academy of Sciences' Transportation Research Board.

The result is a lack of information. Even the "know-your-limit" cards distributed to warn drivers about safe drinking levels are often based on male body weights that don't always apply to women, Ms. Popkin said.

Overall, the nation's traffic death rate continues to drop per miles driven. That's not only a result of increased driving nationwide but also because of better safety on the road and in vehicles.

But the new study shows that women are benefiting less than men from that good news.

In 1975, 16 percent of the nation's traffic deaths were those of women. By 1990, the number of traffic deaths dropped, but women accounted for 24 percent of the toll.

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