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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?
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.