Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Who are worse drivers, women or men?

I was out for drinks with coworkers and talking about last week's blog post, which complains about cars. Being New Yorkers as well, most of my coworkers were sympathetic. But then the conversation took a surprising turn. One guy mentioned that there was one thing he would never do: get in a car with a woman behind the wheel. Women are terrible drivers.

This made me livid, and I immediately lambasted him for such a sexist claim. Perhaps that's something you would hear when hanging out with a group of friends, but with coworkers? And there was a woman in the group, as well! Most of us can see that this would normally be considered inappropriate.

I immediately took out my phone and started looking up stats to prove that, in fact, men are worse drivers. I didn't know this already, but assumed it must be the case. And it was. In nearly every measurable factor, men are worse drivers than women:

  • Men tend to have more crashes
  • Mens' crashes tend to be more serious
  • Men are more likely to speed
  • Men are more likely to drive while intoxicated
  • Men are more than twice as likely to have fallen asleep at the wheel

And this is why, naturally, men's insurance premiums cost more than women's. Like many "secret" trends, it's surprising how straightforward these stats are, and how simple to find. (You can trust that a subject will be well-measured and analyzed whenever there is money riding on it.) Yet, many people still insist on holding inaccurate beliefs.

(There are many stats about this online that agree; here is the source for those above. And, despite what my coworker tried to rebut, the stats are based on rates, not absolute numbers, so the number of drivers doesn't matter.)

Trouble is, in retrospect I realized that I argued the case all wrong.

It doesn't matter that men are in reality worse drivers than women. Knowing this, would someone now make the decision to never get in a car with a male driver? No, that would clearly be absurd.

The reason it's absurd is that we've all been trained to think of men as individuals, not as a group. Some men may be bad drivers, but we can all realize that this doesn't mean ALL men are, and we can all think of examples of men who are good drivers.

That line of thought is a logical, good thing. What's sad is how much harder it is for some people, such as my coworker, to apply the same logic to women. It's unlikely that there are any women who "would never get in a car with a man behind the wheel", even though - surprise! - they would be at least a bit more justified in that than my coworker is with the opposite.

My coworker's worst crime, his biggest flaw in logic, was not in thinking women were worse drivers than men - they very well could have been, on average. It was extrapolating an average characteristic of a group to apply to every single member of that group.

This is the root of all sexism, racism, and prejudice of any kind. There are always two flaws in logic at work - the details of the assumption, and the fact that you're making an assumption at all. Of the two, the latter is worse. After all, the details of the assumption may very well be positive, but it would still be incorrect to make an assumption. Even if a statement about a group is true on average, you can't extrapolate that to individual members of the group.

Our mission should not be to inform people that, in fact, men are worse drivers than women. They are, on average, but it doesn't matter at the individual level. Our goal should be to realize that assumptions never apply to individuals. Group-level information is still useful, of course, to identify trends and work on solutions. But if I'm about to get in a car with a male driver, there is no way I can correctly guess if he is a good or bad driver based solely on his gender, or aggregate statistics about any of the groups he belongs to.

What's the Secret Peace trend here? Just the trend that more and more people are making this realization and refraining from group stereotypes (you can reference the equality chapter of my book for lots of stats on that.) It was nice when out at the bar to hear that none of my other coworkers joined in the sexist argument; in fact, the only reason it was so notable is that it was an anomaly.