Why You'd Rather Ride With a Woman Than a Man

Last post, I passed on some data showing that women are somewhat more likely than men to be involved in car accidents on a per mile driven basis. But men are far more likely (by between 50 and 100 percent) to be in crashes involving loss of life. Why are men’s crashes so much more tragic? An interesting summary of the research from the Social Issues Research Centre provides some ideas.

The male propensity to ignore traffic laws

A number of studies have shown that men are more likely to violate the rules of the road. Jennifer Schwartz reported that in 2004 more than four times more men than women were arrested for drunk driving (gated). Even given that men drive more, that’s an extremely lopsided rate.

Fran H. Norris, B. Alex Matthews and Jasmin K. Riad have found that men are less likely to obey other traffic laws (gated). D. Parker and S.G. Stradling found that men are much more likely to run red lights, tailgate, and race other drivers, as well as drive drunk.

A major reason (gated) for this, discovered by researcher Dana Yagil, appears to be that women tend to view traffic laws as just and necessary, and will obey them even when safety is not a factor. Men tend to be more skeptical, and are thus more likely to view road rules as “optional.”

However, while disregard for traffic regulations might be a proximate cause of deadly accidents, it is not the ultimate cause. Men may have violent crashes because they disobey the rules, but why do they disobey them?

Aggression

A vast literature, plus common sense, indicates that men are far more physically aggressive than women. For example, they are far more likely to commit violent crimes like homicide.

Research has found that this behavior unsurprisingly manifests itself in the realm of transportation. For example, Anthony N. Doob and Alan E. Gross found that men are three times more likely to honk their horns than women. The Australian insurer AAMI reports that men are more likely to rudely gesture at or verbally abuse other drivers. A number of other studies confirm men are more aggressive on the road.

Clearly, heightened aggression may lead not just to disobeying traffic laws, but to dangerous displays of emotionally-charged recklessness behind the wheel.

Sensation-seeking and risk taking

Men have been shown in numerous studies to engage in thrill-seeking behavior more than women. The WHO reports men far outnumber women in accidental deaths involving risky behavior, including falls and drowning. Men are also much more likely to consume excessive amounts of alcohol, which causes and exacerbates reckless behavior.

Dangerous driving is one manifestation of thrill-seeking. This would explain why men drive faster than women; this is suggested by a paper (gated) by M. L. Chipman, C. G. MacGregor, A. M. Smiley and M. Lee-Gosselin, whose study in Ontario found that men drove 50 percent greater distances than women but spent only 30 percent more time doing so.

All of this indicates that men simply receive greater pleasure from the power, speed and danger that can be found behind the wheel, and thus are at much greater risk of severe accidents when it all goes wrong.

Aggression and thrill-seeking bring us closer to an ultimate cause, but again we might ask what in turn is at the root of these types of emotions and behaviors.

The literature indicates that the difference is not primarily cultural. True, US TV shows and car commercials lionize male drivers thundering over rugged terrain, and darting in and out of traffic. But the higher frequency of fatal crashes for men stretches across places and nations. Europe, Africa and Asia all report a much higher fatality rate for male drivers.

The main thrust of the research is thus moving toward a biological explanation. For example, there is pretty consistent agreement that thrill- and sensation-seeking is linked to testosterone levels, which are obviously higher in men than in women. (Interestingly, J.M Dabbs, B.R. Ruback, R.L. Frady, C.H. Hopper and D. Sgoutas have found that testosterone levels are also high in women who commit unprovoked violent crimes.)

And why, in turn, do men have this biochemistry? The report’s authors believe it has to do with evolutionary psychology. According to this school of thought, our evolutionary process has promoted behaviors which helped us survive on the savanna.

Hunter-gatherer life assigned clear sex-specific roles. Women raised the children and did the gathering, while men hunted and were responsible for protecting the group. The latter roles placed an emphasis on speed, brawn, spatial abilities, love of the chase and, crucially, aggression when protecting the band from outside threats, human or animal. P. Marsh and P. Collett attribute male aggression to an inborn territorial instinct; when men feel their “turf” is violated they lash out.

These behaviors are deeply ingrained. Researchers Leda Cosmides and John Tooby describe our prior existence as “a camping trip that lasted an entire lifetime, and this way of life endured for most of the last 10 million years.” In comparison, the auto arrived a blink of an eye ago, and we? have not had time to evolve a new set of behaviors for coping safely behind the wheel.

In addition to showing why men are more likely to court danger and display violent behavior on the roads, this explanation may also help explain why women are somewhat more likely to get in minor accidents. Men may be better equipped with spatial perception and quicker reflexes, resulting in fewer crashes overall. But when overconfidence in these abilities, fuelled by aggression and thrill-seeking, takes over, the results are tragic.

Eventually men may evolve into a species more suited to operating motor vehicles, but this will probably not be the case; driverless cars or at least cars with automatic driving aids designed to prevent most accidents will be with us in decades, while evolution would take a few million years to change behavior by killing off reckless male drivers. Until driverless cars arrive, we might indeed be better off if wives took the wheel, while us guys focus on spearing the occasional gazelle that wanders into our backyards.


Ben Sauer

If one controls for dangerous behavior then, it's likely that men are net the bad habits better drivers. (Not having done the math) And if so, it's safer to have a man drive who does not exhibit these mistakes.

Catemaco

"Gated"?

I'm having trouble reading your article because of the distracting addition of the word "gated" after several of the references. What is this mysterious "gated", and why is it here?

Mike

What if Americans are more likely to drive cautiously when they have passengers in the car? Women might be more likely to be driving passengers (their kids).

Raymond

If we're driving in Manhattan traffic, I would feel MUCH safer with a male driver than a female driver. You need some aggression to survive here.

Jonathan Gerard

There is a more subtle reason that women, more than men, follow the rules of the road. Our sense of obligation is directly proportional to the closeness of a given relationship. We feel obligated towards our children, our parents, our neighbors, earthquake victims in Chile--in ever widening (and weakening) circles of obligation. We often don't have a sense of obligation to follow traffic laws because we don't feel an especially close relationship to the government that created those laws. But women live their lives more palpably in terms of their relationships while men tend to live more competitively (hence their greater record of aggression on the road). The more socially connected women, therefore, are also more likely to feel the obligations of the social contract, including its requirement to follow traffic laws.

Quill

I really enjoyed this essay. Well researched and clearly written.

AK

Two interesting facts from this article:

(1) '[M]en are far more likely (by between 50 and 100 percent) to be in crashes involving loss of life."

(2) "[M]ore than four times more men than women were arrested for drunk driving"

So men drive drunk *four times* as often as women, but are only in *twice* as many deadly accidents?

All else being equal, we would expect men to be in four times as many deadly accidents. That's not what happens. Interesting!

John Smith

Women can't drive. End of discussion.

--Lia

For Catemaco-- I was puzzled by "gated" too and googled it. The definition I got is that gated means "switched on or capable of being switched on or off." In the essay, it appears after a phrase that's used as a link. Let's guess that it's a leftover from putting the essay into a form that can be read on the web, a way of saying that these words are used in the link and the link is over now.

--Lia

Melanie

Catemaco,

"Gated" usually means that the linked article is behind a registration page. It's an alert to the reader that, unless you're a member of the site hosting the article, you probably won't be able to read more than the abstract.

Mark Brucker

I remember years ago reading a study that found that men, perhaps especially white males, perceive themselves to be at less risk than others. Some of that may be true; white men have historically been held less accountable for a lot of their behavior than certainly men of other groups.

Greg

"Dangerous driving is one manifestation of thrill-seeking. This would explain why men drive faster than women.... All of this indicates that men simply receive greater pleasure from ... speed...."

I find these three sentences to comprise two non sequiturs. Fast driving does not automatically fall into the category of dangerous driving; the author himself acknowledges the restrictions of "traffic laws ... even when safety is not a factor". Furthermore, the conclusion that men's faster driving derives from pleasure is an unsupported assertion. Personally, I exceed the speed limit to optimize my time usage and to reduce the irritation of driving, which I find distinctly unpleasurable.

JennyB

Erm, afraid not AK - because only a minority of deadly accidents are caused by drunk driving.

JP Gal

Do we really know that hunter-gathered life assigned sex-specific roles? It's a theory, but it's not the only theory about how human evolved, and it continues to stick around precisely because it excuses so much bad behavior in men. Men and women have much more in common physically and temperamentally than not, and although labor is divided by sex in most cultures, what labor is done by which sex varies considerably. The single constant is that whatever men do is valued more.

Jlee

This is just a guess AK. But it could be that drunk driving is an individual thing (ie one drunk man is caught for drunk driving) whereas fatal accidents can involve more than one person. The study doesn't clarify whether it was men who were at fault, just that they died twice as much.

Possible scenario: 4 men were involved in drunk driving, 2 got home safely and 2 of them got in accidents. 1 man killed himself and a woman driving another car, while the other man slammed into a tree killing only himself. Here 4x's the men were caught drunk driving. Twice as many men were killed as women in accidents.

Just in case some were thinking that these 'interesting' rates came from men being better drivers. It doesn't necessarily imply that.

Community member

Can you chop up your statistics on men into extended-adolescent-boys and men, please? I mean, yeah, I know I don't want a 21 yr-old jock driving, buy how about a 35 yr-old father of 2?

As an aside, there must be a lot of people who read the Freakonomics blog who don't read much else on the web. Describing a link to research as "gated" was so obvious to me it took me a second to figure out what the commenters were even asking about.

Wendy Altenhof

AK,

Drunk driving accounts for less than half of fatal accidents. (And according to NHTSA, only 30% of accidents result in injury and less than 1% result in a fatality.)

Weaving in and out of traffic, exceeding the posted speed limit for a road, and exceeding a safe speed for the condition of the road all increase the risk of an accident, and the post explained that men are more likely to do all of those.

I also suspect that women may be less likely to get arrested when they drive drunk. . . either because they drive fewer miles on main roads where patrols are, or are less likely to be asked to take a brethalyzer test.

Greg

This talk of "thrill-seeking" and "lashing out" are the pejorative descriptions. Another way of describing the same phenomenon is that men and women have different risk-reward preferences, women being willing to purchase modest increases in safety at the cost of large decreases in pleasure (since driving fast is more fun than driving slowly) and efficiency (since most travel time is spent not for its intrinsic value but for the value of the things that are done at the end of the travel).

Or perhaps women also prefer higher speeds and lower travel time but, in view of their poorer spacial perception and slower reflexes, find that their cost (in additional risk) is greater for each increment of benefit (in additional speed) than for men. Standard Econ 101 manipulation of marginal cost/marginal benefit curves will tell us that the profit-maximizing outcome will be for the better driver (i.e., the one with better perception and reflexes) to take greater risks than the worse driver and thus to have a higher number of bad outcomes.

We'd "be better off if wives take the wheel," only as long as we don't mind spending (wasting?) a larger portion of our lives in unpleasant, profitless travel. The statistics indicate that, in fact, most people would NOT "rather ride with a woman than a man." The fact that men do more of the driving strongly suggests that most couples' preferences are less risk-averse (or to use a pejorative description, less "timid" or even "cowardly") than those of the sorts of people who are so obsessed with safety that they want to write articles about it.

By the way, it's not clear to me that evolution will kill off "reckless" male drivers. My own guess would be that they have much higher procreation rates than safety-obsessed male drivers.

Read more...

ScottF

@Catemaco, @Melanie

"Gated" means the link is to a site that requires some sort of registration of subscription in order to enter.

Carolyn

Not all miles on the road are equal. A mile at high speed is different from a mile in small crowded streets.

It's possible that everybody has more nonfatal accidents parking, moving through slow traffic, turning into a street and so on, and that more fatal accidents occur at high speed. If that's the case, then a gender difference in driving patterns might explain the whole thing with no difference in driving skill.