Are Women Being Taken for a Ride?

According to sociologist Pepper Schwartz they are — as car passengers. Schwartz reports that even in households that consider themselves feminist, men are far more likely to take the keys when the couple rides together. Does the evidence back her up?

I’ve been working with the American Time Use Survey, a great data set collected by the Department of Labor. The ATUS is chock-full of fun facts; for example, American adults report spending more than two- and-one-third times more time at gambling establishments than at museums.

The ATUS shows that women do indeed spend a disproportionate share of their in-car time as passengers — 29 percent. This is more than twice the share of men, who only spend 14 percent as passengers. This certainly suggests that when men and women ride together, men are behind the wheel.

Might issues other than gender per se be responsible for the gap? We can sort this out with more precision using regression, a technique that allows us to untangle the factors that we believe are causing a particular outcome.

The numbers show that, roughly speaking, and holding other demographic factors (including, importantly, income) constant, the share of in-vehicle time we spend as passengers drops until about age 41. From that point on, we increasingly let others do the driving.

Those who work more hours tend to drive more and ride shotgun less. This jibes with the state of our knowledge; carpooling to work is (disappointingly) rare. The large majority of multi-occupant car journeys are “fampools” unrelated to work travel.

Not surprisingly, people are more likely to travel as passengers when there are more adults in the household. This makes intuitive sense; single people can be expected to do most of their travel alone and behind the wheel, while families can split up the driving duties.

Upper-income people tend to spend relatively less time as passengers. It’s likely that the major cause is that wealthier households are more likely to have more than one car, so household members don’t have to share as much.

Even controlling for income, minorities, particularly Hispanics, are disproportionately likely to spend time as passengers. This is consistent with findings by my UCLA colleagues Evelyn Blumenberg and Michael Smart, which show that immigrants, and especially Hispanics, have a high rate of carpooling. (More on their findings on immigrants and travel another time.)

And men vs. women? The regression model pretty much confirms what we saw from the simple averages. Even holding other things constant, men are much more likely than women to drive rather than ride as passengers. The main revelation is that some of the gap between men and women is explained by the fact that men tend to work more hours, which in turn causes them to spend more of their in-car time driving. But this is only a small part of things: the rest of the gap is a black box, a result of the deceptively simple set of factors that go into the construct of gender.

Is the ATUS telling us the real story? The 2001 National Household Transportation Survey says it is. It showed that, on a typical day, when household members shared a car men were more than three times more likely to be the driver as opposed to a passenger. For women it was the reverse; when traveling with household members, women were about twice as likely to be a passenger as opposed to a driver.

Why do men dominate the wheel? In the past, physical factors were important. My grandmother learned to drive only after the introduction of automatic transmission and power steering, which made the task much less physically demanding. But driving today’s cars requires little strength. In addition, our roads are engineered to be quite forgiving, for example with very long reaction times permitted by the system.

What else might be responsible? Cultural factors? Social ones? Psychological differences? Logistics? Animal instinct? Historical inertia?

Furthermore, is this state of affairs due to men’s preferences, women’s, or both?

And should we care?

These aren’t rhetorical questions; I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please post them if you have a chance. And don’t worry, thanks to the miracle of the anonymous comment board, you can vent about the driving habits of your spouse and he or she will never be any the wiser.


I love to drive, and when my husband and I go out together I always drive. He is thrilled with this. The only problem with the arrangement is I have poor night vision, ergo he has to drive at night. (I've heard poor night vision is a condition more prevalent in women than men - perhaps this adds to the percentages?)


I was 35 years old before I saw my mom behind the wheel when my father was also in the car. Might seem odd to some, but it's not a hot-button issue for them. My husband prefers to drive most of the time when we're in the car together, and I couldn't care less. More knitting time for me on long road trips!


My wife would much rather have me drive than her.


When my husband and I go out together (with our without our two small children), I almost always do the driving. The reasons for this are that 1. I have always liked to drive and think I am a better driver than he; 2. the car we always take is considered 'my car' so I am somewhat possessive of it; 3. when my husband drives, I am critical of his driving style and am quick to suggestion how he could drive differently and get us to our destination faster/close to on time. He dislikes this a great deal so he finds it easier to let me take the wheel.

I think I am an atypical woman in this regard and the statistics in this column illustrate that. Women tend to be less aggressive than their male partners, more patient, and more likely to address fussy children in the back seat.


I drive faster than my wife, and more skillfully, I believe - my father was a highway patrolman and taught me to drive fast but safe. So,when we are trying to be on time even though we started late, I drive. She also doesn't like to drive at night, so I usually drive then. But, she likes to drive her car, and it is the one we usually take when on joint trips, as it is much newer and nicer. So, unless we are late or its dark, she drives. Works out pretty well, but I still like the way I drive better; I'm pretty sure she likes the way she drives better. ;-)

Interestingly, the task of teaching all four of our kids to drive was primarily my responsibility.


I (a woman) consider myself a feminist through and through, with expectations of a long, demanding career and aspirations of equality (over time) in child rearing and household responsibilities, and yet I hand over the keys every single time I enter a car. Quite frankly, I prefer not to have the stress and worry of driving. I consider it a luxury not to have to drive and use my fully empowered voice to request the passenger seat whenever possible. In some ways, I like letting my partner drive - there's a chivalry to it that I am happy to endulge in, in this particular case, at least.


I'm not sure about overall (though, from what I see in my own friends it seems accurate) but I know I prefer not to drive if given the option. My fiance doesn't know how to drive, but when he does learn, I plan on driving quite a bit less. I've often wished he could drive instead, so from my own personal experience I see this as a real possibility. And, for a sidenote, I consider myself a feminist. It's not that I don't think I should drive, I just prefer not to.

I'm not sure whether or not we should care about this trend. It's certainly something interesting to know, but I'm not sure it's something we need to focus on a lot. Unless of course, it's because women are afraid or something similar.


When I was little (along with a young brother and sister), my dad would do the driving on family trips so that my mom was free to do other stuff. My dad didn't always do the driving, but he did the vast majority. As the kids grew up, I imagine that inertia took over. My mom and my dad just went to their respective car door and there was no discussion needed.


Higher likelihood of male criticism and female is behind the wheel and controlling behavior prior to entering a vehicle? Just guessing here based on my experience:)


What in the world does feminism have to do with who does the driving in a household car?

The answer to your final question is decidedly "no."


I let my fiance drive when we go out together because he doesn't just sit passively - he has to point out potential obstacles hundreds of feet in advance, tell me to slow down when I'm already stepping on the brakes, or tell me I'm going the wrong direction (when really we are going the right way). Sometimes it's just easier to let him drive and not have to deal with the complaints.


I do not enjoy driving. My spouse did. He did more of it as a result. Is there something about driving that's more likely to please men than women? (and for the record, I was raised as a feminist, learned to drive a stick-shift at age 16 and have been driving ever since so it doesn't seem to be entirely cultural for my age cohort)


I know that my mom prefers not to drive. Since my dad moved out, she's had me drive pretty much anytime we're going somewhere together. She does plenty of driving on her own too - it's not that she can't drive or anything - but she prefers not to if there's an option.

On the other hand, my aunt pretty much won't be in the car unless she's driving. That's mostly due to motion sickness, from what I gather.


Men would rather drive, and women, might want to, but will concede to the man who wishes to.
It really is that simple.

C. Clark

Our situation is simple: I do most of the driving on trips, because my wife likes to read in the car and I can't - it makes me car-sick.


I think it's at least partially cultural.

I remember a scene in MASH when Hotlips wouldn't let Frank drive, essentially un-manning him to the delight of others.

I don't think that's changed too much.

In our house, I drive the minivan and my husband drives the compact. We each drive our own cars, regardless of the passenger mix.


Personally, I'd rather my wife drives. If I'm driving she's always telling me how to drive, or the route to take. With her driving the radio is the only source of irritating noise.


To be fair, my girlfriend is not as good of a driver as I am and we both know it. Plus she prefers to be passenger so she can do makeup et cetera on the way to things.


Frankly, I prefer to dive with my husband because he has road rage and his driving makes me crazy!

Nancy Bush

It's a luxury to be driven! Why not. I get to do all kinds of things instead of pay attention to other crazy drivers. My husband does all the food shopping and cooking as well. He does laundry and take the kids to many of their activities. I love when he does the driving. Do I really want to spend four hours driving to Tahoe to our second home for the weekends if he wants to do it. What is wrong with being loved and pampered? Why do women hate it so? Why am I being taken advantage of if my husband makes my life easy?

I love being pampered!