Gender gap on road narrows Women are becoming as aggressive behind the wheel as men

January 04, 1998|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

Although traditionally the safer drivers, women are closing the gender gap when it comes to wreaking havoc on the road.

Women's driving behavior, like their social role, has changed in recent decades. They have the tickets and crashes to prove it.

Consider this: Women in the 1990s have more collisions per mile than men, although their crashes are less likely to be severe. Men are still more likely to have a fatal crash, but female drivers are dying in far greater numbers than they were 20 years ago. Meanwhile, deaths among male drivers have dropped.

"It's almost becoming a unisex driving environment," said Richard Retting, senior transportation engineer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an industry-funded research group.

"Women's behavior is paralleling that of men in many ways, and they're becoming increasingly aggressive," Retting said.

To its surprise, the institute found in a 1996 traffic study that women were as likely as men to run red lights. Police say such behavior is a trait of aggressive drivers.

Although men have been the participants in the most notorious and fatal road duels, the "gentler sex" is not immune. Two young women came to blows at an intersection in Towson last winter after a driving dispute.

In a separate incident, Lauren Dale, a Baltimore mother of three, said a carload of young women pelted her car with trash last summer when they had to wait a few seconds for her to maneuver around them on a city street.

"It was a total nonevent they escalated to a really scary scene," she said.

'More aggressive' driving

Maryland State Police pull over many women for speeding, lane-hopping and tailgating.

"Over the last five or six years, females have become more aggressive in their driving," said Lt. Michael E. Davey, commander at the Golden Ring barracks, which patrols most of the Baltimore Beltway. Just last week, he heard about a tractor-trailer being driven recklessly -- by a woman, he said.

Patricia Fletcher, a professor who commutes from Columbia to Catonsville, said she saw one thirtysomething woman drive onto a shoulder to pass traffic and then yell insults when she couldn't re-enter a lane as quickly as she wanted.

"Women are as aggressive as men, from what I've seen," Fletcher said.

A recent survey in Michigan suggests she's right. Conducted for the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning, the survey found that women are slightly more likely to be aggressive drivers than men, contrary to stereotypes.

So what is going on with women on the road?

Unfortunately, there isn't much research on the topic, said Barbara Harsha, executive director of the National Association of Governors' Highway Safety Representatives.

"No one knows for sure why women's rate of involvement in crashes is going up, but there are a lot of theories," she said.

Some theories from safety, government and insurance groups involve women's driving patterns.

As a group, women in the 1990s are more likely to have a driver's license then their mothers or grandmothers were decades ago. They also are driving more miles and are driving more at night, when many crashes occur. The average woman is driving almost twice as many miles a year as a female driver was 20 years ago. More driving means more risk.

Some experts point to the social trends that have propelled women into the workplace and onto the highways.

'Social roles transformed'

"The past 20 years have seen some significant social upheavals. Because their social roles have been transformed, women drive more like men -- more aggressively -- and they are commuting in similar patterns," said Stephanie Faul of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Like men, women may be suffering from stress, grueling commutes and the rush to get more done in less time, according to safety and insurance groups.

"The days of June Cleaver are long gone, where June could take her time going to the grocery store," said Steven Goldstein, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute.

Radford University professor Martin Turnauer, who has taught driver education, said: "Women are not as different from males as they thought they were. They have all the [same] pressures of life." In addition, more women are driving sport utility vehicles, which, Turnauer said, bring out aggression in some drivers.

Since 1975, fatalities among female drivers have risen 75 percent, to 6,632 in 1996, while deaths among male drivers fell 10 percent, to 17,822 in 1996, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

'Dying more like men'

"We have gained equality, but part of the price we're paying is we're dying more like men: more heart attacks, more cigarette-related deaths and more car accidents," said Julie A. Rochman of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Women, as a group, still drive less than men and therefore have fewer total accidents. But when researchers correct for that difference, another picture emerges.

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