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Women are bad and incompetent drivers and have no place behind the wheel

How did the stereotype develop, is it true at all, and why does it persist?

When we live in a world where patriarchy is at the core of society, it stands to reason that we will encounter sexist stereotypes that sound logical only because they have never been critically examined. Even if we don't sincerely believe them, we may not challenge them simply because we don't have enough information and instead rely on the saying that every stereotype is wrong about the entire minority group but is still based on some truth. It is for this reason that this is the first in a series of articles in which we will look at the truth of many sexist stereotypes and, if we can, trace where they come from. However, the dangerous thing about stereotypes is not that they are completely right or wrong, but that they prescribe a quality or expectation only to a group of people that is actually universal. Do you really have to be a woman to be a bad driver, or do we all have that potential?

Where does the stereotype come from?

The history of the stereotype of women as bad drivers begins soon after the invention of the automobile and is closely related to the older stereotype of female cyclists. To be more precise, it is tied to the newfound autonomous mobility of women and the many fashions and rhetorical changes that occur because of the popularization of the bicycle. The first portable bike was invented in 1878, the first wheel with a chain was patented a year later, and the 1880s were the decade that saw major innovations such as the tricycle for adults, the tandem bicycle, the inflatable tire, and the flip brake. The innovation boom was a consequence of the cycling craze in Victorian Britain, which began in the 1870s after the invention of the penny farthing wheel (the old bicycle with a comically large front tyre and a small rear tyre).

Thanks to the craze, many women who were confined to the domestic sphere and discouraged from exercise and sports had a socially acceptable excuse to leave the house and exercise their bodies without condemning themselves to spinsterhood. A major change brought about by the new popular hobby was a massive shift in fashion, with women of all classes for the first time exchanging heavily layered skirts for lighter, narrower, and shorter ones, with some even donning bloomers. Because of the "unacceptable" and "masculine" appearance of female cyclists, society reacted drastically, with doctors starting to warn that cycling was harmful to women because of the danger of infertility, back curvature, hysteria, etc. The most interesting thing is the invention of a disease called "bicycle face", according to which, with prolonged cycling, a woman's face can become permanently ruddy or pale, with bulging eyes, undereye bags, thinned lips, and a clenched jaw. For early female cyclists like Emma Eads, the concerns were not so much about health, as safety, since there were instances where they were not only insulted by onlookers but even pelted with bricks. Irrational social concerns tied to the seemingly sudden change in feminine demeanour naturally translated to cars when they put an end to the cycling craze.


Although the exact date when the first modern automobile was invented is disputed, the development of the modern engine occurred in the 1890s, the first automobile manufacturers began operations in 1889 and 1891, and the first Ford assembly line was installed in 1913, thus making the car significantly cheaper and, therefore, widespread. Prejudices that immediately developed were that women are too emotional to drive, that they won't feel comfortable alone in a car, and even that the machinery of cars is too complicated machines for women to comprehend. Even then, the stereotypes are easily challenged by reviewing the facts, such as that Bertha Benz, the wife of Karl, who founded the company today known as Mercedes Benz, was the first long-distance driver in history. On August 5, 1888, she drove her sons alone to Pforzheim, Germany, where her mother lived; about a 100 km journey.

According to studies in the USA from the 1920s and 1930s, when public money was invested in the country to build streets, despite the negative stereotypes, women wanted to learn to drive. This is supported by the fact that although New York was the first state to require a driver's license in 1901, the first female driver's license in the US was given to Anne Raysford French Bush on January 1st, 1900. The truth is that women have been driving for as long as men, and yet the stereotypes they fight against persist to this day.


Is there any truth to the stereotype?

As before, stereotypes and "logical" explanations nowadays do not correspond to the reality that is reflected in statistics. While some studies point to women as more distracted drivers, others find that men are more easily distracted. The most commonly cited study in support of the stereotype concluded that the most frequent crashes in the US from 1988 to 2007 were between two female drivers, but did not explain why this was the case, with the same publication specifically pointing to evidence that it was not as simple as concluding that men are better drivers. The following year, one of the academics published a study showing that women in the US drive shorter distances, which for many people recontextualizes the results and makes it a matter of experience rather than gender. If these were the only studies available it might be easier to say that women are worse drivers because they drive less, but the truth is simply not so black and white.

In US crash deaths, men are consistently overrepresented, with 32,000 male driving fatalities in 1975 and 11,844 female driving ones and 26,000 male driving fatalities in 2016, and 10,900 female driving ones. When it comes to being conscious and present, 56% of men and 45% of women tend to drive while drowsy and 22% of men and 12% of women are more likely to fall asleep while driving (although driving while tired is legal, professional opinion is that it is as dangerous as drunk driving). When it comes to DUIs, 77.6% of those arrested in the US in 2010 were men, with 32% of men and 23% of women being rearrested on this charge. By age 34, a man is twice as likely to die in a crash as a woman. According to a study from New York, 80% of pedestrian accidents that result in death or serious injury are the fault of male drivers.

This does not show that in fact the stereotype is completely wrong and women are better drivers. The study, which points to a crash between two women as the most common, demonstrates this. The truth is that gender does not play a role in conscientious driving. It all depends on the attention paid to the road and the responsible behaviour of the driver. And, if it were so easy to challenge the stereotype, it wouldn't have existed for over a century. It would have been easier to dismiss it as just another annoying aspect of the patriarchy, but unfortunately, it leads to systemic problems and has psychological impacts that, paradoxically, reinforce the wrong expectation as true.

What are the implications of its existence?

An interesting comment in the discussion that the two-way crash study makes is that a possible reason for the majority of women in crashes in some cases is reduced visibility due to the shorter average height of women relative to men. The author of the book "Invisible Women", Caroline Criado Perez, creates the Visible Women podcast, in which she takes a closer look at the topic of the safety of a woman in a car relative to the structure of the car, and her findings show that, in fact, cars are deliberately made only for men. The dummies on which the safety of a car is tested are constructed with the idea that only average men drive. This puts not only women at an increased risk, but also men with shorter stature and with higher weight. Although it would cost about a dollar for every car in the US, the companies that make cars refuse to expand their definition of the average person in crash testing dummies "because of economy", never mind that the desperate need for female mannequins has been highlighted for 20 years. Additionally, companies are free to use only male mannequins because both the US, the EU, and the UK lack strong government regulations to protect car buyers' right to safety, although, little by little, that is changing.

Another negative effect that comes from the existence of the stereotype is confirmation bias. The term defines the bias a person exhibits when they seek information to confirm their opinion rather than to gain a full understanding of an issue. This can also occur when we notice and remember only daily events that confirm our understanding of how life works. (Try to remember how people insult bad drivers when they are female and when they are male. Are the insults and connotations they carry the same? How often do you hear "That must've been a man" about a bad driver? How many times can you think of encountering a bad male versus female driver? Do you notice the age of the driver or the city on the license plate for women as you do for men while they drive?)

Additionally, the very existence of the stereotype negatively affects female drivers. As far back as 2008, there was a study that found that during a driving simulation, women who expected to be criticized for their gendered driving performed worse than those who didn't, and while the study wasn't perfect, it opened the door for more similar studies. This is called a stereotype threat, and it affects stress and self-esteem levels by inciting negative thoughts and reducing attention and thinking ability due to a lack of confidence. A study that builds on the one from 2008 confirms the result that women who expect gender-based criticism do worse, with the interesting finding that both their and the control group's self-estimation of results is lower than the reality, but it only affects the former group. Applied to real life, the study shows that women are more likely to make a driving mistake when they are even in the presence of a man. Given that a man is more likely to express road rage than a woman, and the effect of verbally assaulted drivers is much greater and longer-lasting for women, stereotype threat errors are inevitable. Small recommendations to avoid this are self-affirming phrases and identification with successful and famous female drivers, which increases self-esteem. And, because of that, we'll also look at some women who are fighting against the stereotype and entering the world of competitive driving.

How is the stereotype contested?

Maria Teresa de Philippis


The Italian was the first woman to compete in Formula 1 in 1958 and 1959. She entered five Grands Prix with the Behra-Porsche team, her best result being 10th at Spa, Belgium in 1958.

Lella Lombardi


Lombardi, also Italian, is considered the most successful female racing driver in the world, scoring points during her Formula 1 races and being the only woman to finish in the top six during a Grand Prix.

Amber Cope and Angela Ruck


The two women are the first twins to compete in NASCAR, coming from a racing family. During their 7-year karting career together, the two sisters collected 50 victories and 20 pole positions, and at 15, before even getting their driver's licenses, they started competing in the latest model racing cars. Angela drove in a total of 32 NASCAR races and Amber in 3.

Sabine Schmitz


Also known as the Queen of the Nürburgring, Schmitz became known as the fastest female taxi driver in the world because she drives one of two BMW M5 circumnavigation taxis at the 20.8 km Nürburgring track, which she has crossed over 20,000 times. She is known to fans of the show Top Gear for several memorable appearances.

Dorothy Levitt


English and Jewish, Levitt became famous for setting the record for the longest drive by a woman in 1905. In addition to driving, she could also sail and fly. Interestingly, she taught England's Queen Alexandra and Princess Louise how to drive.

Regardless of when and where, since the invention of the automobile, women have fought for a place side by side with men and succeeded, despite stereotypes and negative expectations.


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