Friday, December 7, 2012

Who are the worst drivers?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 5.)

I am about to go where few male columnists are reckless enough to stray.
Having fortified myself with several stiff single malt whiskies, I am going to venture an opinion on the relative merits of male and female drivers.

This is high-risk territory, since it’s well established that women drivers are one of those subjects that only other women are allowed to comment on. But before female readers erupt in fury, anticipating another tiresome round of male derision, I should explain that I’m on their side.
In fact my purpose in writing this column is to defend them against belittling comments made by … a woman.

Writing recently in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, Jessica Fellowes observed that when she saw motorists hogging the middle of the motorway while driving under the speed limit, or blocking an intersection while deciding which way to turn, or changing their mind about whether to let a mother with a pram cross the road, nine times out of 10 it was a female driver.
“It always makes me furious,” she wrote, “not because bad driving is dangerous, but because she is letting the side down.”

Fellowes went on to argue that while women may have fewer accidents, that doesn’t make them better drivers. “Pootling at 65 kmh in the inside lane on the motorway may prevent you from crashing into anyone,” she wrote, “but it is probably causing a pile-up in the outside lane as other drivers turn their heads to swear at you for forcing them to overtake at high speeds.”
She concluded that when all is said and done, men are generally better drivers.

This would be an incendiary claim if it came from a male, although many men may secretly agree. But I believe Fellowes is wrong.
Yes, men are technically better drivers, generally speaking. Most men have a more natural affinity with anything mechanical – although oddly enough, I’ve known far more men than women who didn’t drive at all.

A male driver is more likely to master a hill start without too much difficulty. He’s more likely to be at ease with a manual rather than an automatic transmission, less troubled by having to reverse (I know a woman whose husband has to back the car out of the garage for her) and more comfortable with parallel parking, which some women drivers go to great lengths to avoid – even if it means leaving the car several blocks from wherever they want to go.
Obviously there are exceptions to this rule – a British survey indicated that 11 per cent of men avoid parallel parking – but in general terms, men are more confident drivers: more willing than women to back a trailer down a narrow driveway, tackle a rough 4WD track or enjoy the thrill of driving fast on a twisty mountain road.

But does that necessarily make them better drivers in the broader sense? Confidence is a double-edged sword. Men’s mastery of the technical aspects of driving may lead them to take risks that women, for lack of confidence, avoid.
The great British Formula One driver Stirling Moss once said there were two things no man would admit doing badly: driving and making love.

Combine a surfeit of that self-confidence with the aggression and competitiveness that comes with testosterone, and you have a much greater risk of an accident.
It all comes down to how you define a good driver. Is it one who is technically competent, or one who doesn’t take silly risks – even if that means sometimes being more cautious than is strictly necessary?

Jessica Fellowes seems to judge drivers purely by their technical skills. In that case I wonder how she would rate boy racers, many of whom are skilful drivers – they know how to put a car into a controlled drift, for example, or apply opposite lock to control a skid  – but are tragically accident-prone because they lack maturity and sound judgement.
This much I can say with absolute conviction: in nearly 45 years of driving in several countries, the worst driving displays I have witnessed have invariably been by men.

Some of these men may have been technically competent drivers, but dangerous nonetheless because of their aggression and ego. Put some men behind the wheel and they behave like strutting bantam roosters, regarding every other male on the road as a (sexual?) rival. There are no road users more menacing than these macho primitives, and sadly New Zealand is full of them.
I don’t recall ever seeing such behaviour from a woman driver, although they are not without their faults. Despite being labelled the gentle sex, many women accelerate harder and brake more sharply than they need to. It makes for a jerky drive, burns fuel unnecessarily and wears the brakes out prematurely. But it could hardly be called life-threatening.

More worrying, and just as hard to explain, is the tendency of many women drivers to tailgate, often at speed. Some men do it too, but usually for the purpose of harassing or intimidating the driver in front – the human equivalent of the bantam rooster’s aggressive body language in the barnyard. Why so many women do it is a mystery.
Arguably the worst drivers of all are older men, who remain convinced of their superior driving skills but become stubbornly oblivious to every other road user. The worst possible combination, in my experience, is an elderly man wearing a hat and driving an old ute.

I’m not ashamed to say that only last week I dobbed one such older driver in to a highway patrolman after he crossed the Rimutaka Hill, between the Wairarapa and Wellington, at a pace that would have made a funeral procession look like the Monaco Grand Prix.
Despite having plenty of opportunities to pull over and let faster vehicles pass, he doggedly held his ground even when more than a dozen cars had backed up behind him. Inevitably, impatient drivers then began taking risks. Three cars pulled out and overtook in places where clearly it wasn’t safe to do so.

The cop I alerted, who then stopped the errant vehicle (a tired old van), told me later that the driver, a man in his late 60s, was nonplussed; he didn’t realise he’d done anything wrong. Perhaps he thought that mirror thingy in the centre of the windscreen was for hanging things on.



JC said...

A few years ago an acquaintance and I were driving in traffic when a tall blonde girl in blouse, short skirt and briefcase that screamed "professional" jay walked ahead of us. It was perfectly timed and confident and I said to my mate "It's their world.. isn't it", there was an affirmative approving grunt.

I have two daughters in their 40s who are mums.. one drives a sports car in British racing green and the other drives a 4 X4 ute, both are mildly contemptuous of me driving automatic transmission cars.

On the road, in my reduced state of driving between 80 and 110 kph I am sometimes passed by these confident mums and professionals so I tend to the view that the driving baton has been passed from male Boomers to their daughters. Unlike Fellowes I find these women fast and confident to go with their natural prudence; they will disobey the road rules where they don't matter and abide by them where it is obviously prudent.

In short, I find NZ women more aggressive and competent on the roads than they used to be but retain a degree of prudence that we didn't see from males in the past.. it is certain that today's males are likewise more prudent than they used to be, as the diminishing road toll confirms.. but in the greater scheme of things, I'm not 100% sure that this is a good thing.



Vaughan said...

Contrary to Stirling Moss's comment, I am quite prepared to say that I am a man who is a poor driver and not very good at making love.

That is why I would like more practice.

I am sure I can find a driving instructor but ladies, would you please be so kind as to send (via Karl) your offers of help for my other shortfall.