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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.