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Ya Hear the One About Women Drivers?

It was wrong. Though women \o7 are\f7 involved in more fatal car crashes today, that's because there are more of them on the road, experts say.

November 15, 2001|MARIA ELENA FERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Contrary to popular opinion, women in the United States are not terrible drivers. Sure, the numbers show fatal crashes among women have increased 60% since 1975 and, yes, more women are involved in nonfatal accidents than men every year, but those numbers are misleading ... really.

A study released today by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found women are having more accidents because they are driving in far larger numbers than they once did.

"You often hear that women drivers are getting more aggressive, more like men, that they speed more and cut you off," said Susan Ferguson, the institute's senior vice president and author of the study. "While it's true that fatal crashes have increased dramatically among women, we wanted to examine the factors involved. What we have found is that more female drivers are licensed than ever before, and they drive quite a few more miles per year. Once we accounted for that, we determined there is no evidence that women are becoming riskier drivers." So much for all those jokes about women drivers.

The safety of female drivers has been a concern in the United States and abroad since the mid-1980s as women have become involved in more fatal accidents around the world. Using data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, the Federal Highway Administration and the National Personal Transportation Survey, researchers tracked fatal crashes from 1975 to 1998 as well as licensing statistics and trends in travel exposure.

The number of female drivers involved in fatal crashes increased by 60% in that period while the number of men who died in accidents decreased by 11%. Women, for example, accounted for 27% of drivers in fatal accidents in 1998 as compared with 17% in 1975, the report states.

"Casualties have gone up around the world, and the concern has been that women engage in riskier driving practices," Ferguson said. "Our conclusion is that, yes, the number of crashes is going up among females, but it's not about their driving styles. They are just driving more. You're out there more, so you're going to get killed more."

According to the study, 72% of women and 94% of men were licensed to drive in 1975. In 1998, 85% of women were licensed and 93% of men. From 1977 to 1995, motor vehicle travel in the nation increased from 1.4 trillion miles to 2.4 trillion miles. But what is important to note, says Ferguson, is that the number of miles women drove increased by 135% as opposed to those by men, which increased by only 48%. By 1995, American women were driving 886 billion miles a year. Welcome to the world of the harried soccer mom.

"There are more women out on the road nowadays; there are more women out in the workforce, and transporting children and so forth," said California Highway Patrol Officer Wendy Moore, a 20-year veteran. "But I personally have not seen a difference in the behavior of female and male drivers. I can't recall any instances."

However, Ferguson points out, women are less likely to drink and drive and more women wear their seat belts compared to men. In addition, the women involved in fatal crashes in the 23-year period who had been involved in previous crashes or had speeding convictions decreased. Male drivers also experienced a decrease in these factors, an indication that men and women are benefiting from safer cars and roads, Ferguson said. Since 1977, the crash rate for men and women has dropped 40%, the study revealed.

"The bottom line is that women are slightly more likely to be involved in a crash but male drivers are more likely to die, which speaks to the fact that they are driving riskier," Ferguson said. "The number of women involved in fatal accidents has gone up because so many women are driving. But the rates have not gone up, which shows that men are more likely to die in motor vehicle crashes per miles driven."

Why, then, do women bear the brunt of all the bad driving jokes?

"It's just a society thing," Moore says. "Why are all blonds perceived as dumb?"

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