By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
For years women drivers have been derided by men who claim they are indecisive or drive too slowly. But new research suggests women are becoming as aggressive as men behind the wheel. Why?
Eat my dust, boys....
Cabbies have something to say on every subject - but the topic of women drivers is for many of them something of a specialised subject.
Waiting for passengers at East Croydon station, cabbie Mick Brett gives his verdict. "Women drivers have not got any time for anyone else so they barge in. I've been doing this for 33 years and I've noticed it in the last three or four."
Dozens of testosterone-charged cabs behind him in the queue, Pat Harvey, 60, is a lone female voice to break taxi ranks. "I find it's the men who think they can just cut us up and own the road, although I've seen women put on their make-up while driving."
The source of debate is a study in the US and Japan which says young women are just as likely as young men to show hostility on the road. Habits include tailgating, speeding and gesturing.
Although the research looked at just 386 students, the RAC Foundation says the findings reflect what is happening in the UK.
"The gap between the behaviour of male and female drivers is certainly narrowing, for a variety of reasons," says spokeswoman Sue Nicholson.
A "ladette" culture which encourages aggressive behaviour is partly behind the trend, she thinks, along with more stressful and successful female careers.
"Some young women do drive in a similar way to young men and that's often because they have the same jobs, are faced with the same pressure and are driving the same powerful cars.
"They also have the family pressures that women in the world have and although that shouldn't be reflected in people's driving behaviour, it often is. People take their stress and inhibitions with them behind the wheel."
Sexual equality is bringing an end to the traditional passivity of women, says Ms Nicholson, so they're less likely to give way to men drivers and are venting their frustration at macho aggression.
I may look like a lady but I drive like a man...
"In the past the leader of the pack was the male, but that's no longer the case."
Certainly not in one Peugeot 307 in Brighton, where Kirsty Cooper, a 31-year-old music PR consultant, yields no inch to other drivers, regardless of their gender.
"Women are usually worse drivers because they dither and hesitate but I'm not like that," she says. "I do drive more like a man, although I've curbed it since I've had a baby.
"I always feel I have to do everything quickly and if someone gets in my way I can't bear it. If someone's next to me at the lights then I have to be first away."
Men: Speed-seeking, racing, taking risks, road rage, egged on by peers, asking directions
Women: Hesitation at T-junctions and roundabouts, parking, reversing, map-reading
Sources: RAC, Dr Peter Marsh
But rather than packing their crash helmet when their wife offers them a lift, men should be thankful they'll be in safe hands, because any female assertiveness does not seem to result in law-breaking or accidents.
Women committed just 17% of speeding offences between 1998 and 2002, despite rising in number to nearly half of all motorists. And men commit 85% of serious motoring offences, which is why their insurance premiums are higher, despite an aborted effort by the European Commission to equalise them.
Quite right too, says Dr Peter Marsh, author of Driving Passion: The Psychology of the Car, who says the American research overplays the extent of female aggression. He believes men and women have inherent differences which manifest themselves behind the wheel.
"It's a legacy of our evolutionary past. Men like risk-taking, the thrill of the chase and sensation-seeking, - all things you can do in a motor car. They also have high levels of interpersonal aggression.
"It probably goes back to when men were hunter gatherers and needed those kind of attributes and women didn't. These differences will still remain."
The sexes also have differently wired brains which, he says, makes it harder for women to read maps and for men to ask for directions.
Women are more cautious but that sometimes works against them because they're hesitant when turning at junctions, he says. Their accidents tend to be at roundabouts and T-junctions but at slower speeds than men, who are involved in more serious crashes because they can't brake quickly enough.
Although it might be tempting to apply these rules to every driver, it's not that easy.
"Women generally can't park or reverse as well because they lack spatial awareness, but that doesn't apply in my household," adds Ms Nicholson.
Here are a selection of your comments. Thanks for contributing to the discussion.
I believe I can drive as well as any man! I know my car, both inside and out, mechanics and body. I know where it is on the road, and I can feel what it's doing. I know when I'm under-steering or over-steering. I use my brain, and my senses, especially my eyes. I like to drive to near, but within, the limits, of the car and enjoy getting the most out of it, and myself.
I agree with the part when women find it hard to park as when my sister arrives home from work and there is a small space outside the house she often rings me and asks me to park the car for her.
What a load of rubbish! When will someone focus on the similarities between men and women instead of the differences? Maybe then there would be much less shock when women "act like men".
L Dunbar, Hampshire, UK
There are so many incompetent drivers on our roads - dithering, driving too slow, indicating too late. Some don't even seem to have any comprehension that there are other drivers on the road around them. Why is it strange that this should wind women drivers up as well as men? That said, it's always the guys who let me out at t-junctions etc., women seem to have a problem with other women drivers.
Rachel, Newmarket, England
I have certainly noticed in the last two to three years that young women drivers are as aggressive as young male drivers. I thought this was confined to the south coast where driving is excessively aggressive anyway but have also noticed it here in Scotland as well. Perhaps this is just a reflection on today's selfish society where the general consensus seems to be me 1st and to hell with everyone else.
Ian Johnston, Scotland
If a woman can be on a spaceship, why not on a racing car? Let this traditional male underestimation of women stop. Even in third world countries, where women are generally repressed, they are taking to cab and bus driving. Encourage them and they will do it.
Buroshiva Dasgupta, India
I think that it's good that typical female stereotypes are being challenged in such a perceived "male-dominated" environment. It's just a shame that the possible consequences of over-confidence by both men and women can be fatal.
Paul, Bristol, UK
I've always ignored the rhetoric about women being less safe on the roads than men as I've never believed it for a moment. It's garbage as far as I'm concerned as I know some good and bad drivers of both sexes. However, I have made one or two observations lately that have surprised me. My office car park opens out onto a main road and it's notoriously busy at 5:30 when trying to get home. I've never once been let out of the car park by a woman driver. I think the reasons for this are psychological. Women drivers are more aggressive in recent years and I think they see a young male driver in a bright red car as fair game.
Paul, Colchester, UK
I drove professionally in London for many years and it was very noticeable to me how much aggression female drivers now exhibit. Not so much in terms of speed in London style traffic but more of refusing to give ground or give way in difficult situations, but barging straight on with a I own the road approach, together with the lack or unwillingness to read the conditions and act accordingly as most male drivers would, (apart from boy racers).
It's true, you know - I usually look to see what personality type cut me up, and it's almost never a woman. Except, of course, if she's driving an empty 4x4 the size of a tank and nipping into the supermarket to buy a toothbrush... Then, the stress gets too much and she'll ignore everything else on the road!
A typical woman driver's accident: a small dent caused by duffing up a reverse. A typical man's accident: overtaking in the face of approaching traffic, three dead.
It's all part of what some women see as the need to match men in a male-dominated world. Some men only have themselves to blame for this because of their chauvinistic attitude towards women.
Women today - as a whole - are more confident than those of earlier generations and this is reflected in many areas of life, driving being one of them. If I am cut-up by a male driver I will not hesitate to offer a 'hand gesture'. He would get the same treatment from another male driver. Women drivers are not trying to be 'lady racers' we just now refuse to be intimidated by boorish men.
Kiltie, Staffs, UK
I would certainly agree with the comments at the end of your article that the "rules" don't apply to every driver. My wife is, and always has been, a terror behind the wheel. She tailgates, gestures, swears and generally displays the worst road rage I have ever seen. She is so impatient, she often accelerates approaching red lights on the grounds that they are "going to change soon".