A decade ago in the Middle East, I was required to take a driving test to allow me to drive in a mine. As we climbed into the dusty pick-up, the wizened old instructor asked if I was a good driver. I replied that I certainly thought I was.“In the top 10%?” he continued. I nodded, perhaps a little hesitantly.“Good!” he roared with a huge smile. “So does every man on the planet. We are lucky! We are all in the top 10% of drivers. All of us!” and hammered his fist on the dashboard for me to set off. He later explained that in his experience, few women consider themselves ‘the best drivers’ and have more realistic perceptions of their own abilities, so drive more ‘consciously’ and with more ‘care and diligence’.
A UK study of 19,000 drivers over four years by telematics company Wunelli, analysed 40 million journeys for insurance companies, and came to the conclusion that women were safer. While some will say that ‘safer’ doesn’t mean ‘better’, many would argue that getting from A to B unharmed is a good enough metric.
That study showed that proportionate to the miles driven, women make fewer insurance claims, have fewer accidents, break the speed limit less and brake hard less frequently: all by a very significant margin. A study by car-park company NCP showed – contrary to common perception – that women park far more efficiently, and were twice as likely to park centrally in the spaces.
All this evidence provided the rationale for charging lower insurance premiums for women for many years. However, the EU suddenly decided that this discriminated against inept men and so required the insurers to discriminate by postcode and type of car.
Over the last 25 years, most studies have had similar findings: that women are safer drivers. Realistically, the question is not whether women are better drivers, but why?
Interestingly, one survey of driving test errors reported that women recorded a third more errors than men, so suggesting that men are ‘better’ at the very beginning but women become ‘better’ than men with experience. Why would this be? Do women learn more and continuously over time? Is it that traditional (and probably very outdated) female roles in society have encouraged behavioural patterns – caring, patience, precision, empathy – conducive to safer, more defensive driving by women? Even anxiety, nervousness and uncertainty – all cited as negative traits – may well heighten concentration and the focus that encourages safer driving. It is no surprise that in many mines, the huge dump trucks are driven by women, as it has been shown that they drive them more carefully and take more care of the cab and the vehicle.
While it is clearly absurd to propose that every female drives safely, defensively, purposefully and politely or that every man drives aggressively, impatiently and without manners, the statistics are clear and significant. Yet it is worrying that such high numbers of men believe we are among the best drivers. It would seem to be exceptionally rare for men to admit to being 'below average' or 'bad'. Over the years, surveys in various disciplines have seen this astonishing – and statistically impossible – over-confidence in our personal abilities, including even our performance in the bedroom. The yawning gap between our perceived ability and our actual ability, combined with ever more powerful vehicles and equipment makes for a dangerous mix.
Of course, men should not be banned from driving, but more education is most certainly needed to tackle the phenomena of over-confidence in personal ability and the over-reliance on the safety characteristics of modern vehicles. With age comes experience, but it can also bring diminishing skill levels as we ‘learn’ how to drive badly, the benefits of repetition eroded by the lack of moral hazard for over-confidence, haste and impatience. The studies and statistics suggest that when we get behind a steering wheel, we would all be a lot safer allowing anxiety, empathy, patience, care, nervousness and compassion to wash over us.