My View - Karl du Fresne
OPINION: 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, 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 65kmh 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 agree. But I believe Fellowes is wrong.
Yes, men are technically better drivers, generally speaking.
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 and more comfortable with parallel parking, which some women drivers go to great lengths to avoid.
Obviously there are exceptions to this rule, 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? I suspect that 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 self-confidence with the aggression that comes with male testosterone, and you have a greatly heightened 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 skill. 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 - but are tragically accident-prone because they lack maturity and sound judgment.
This much I can say with absolute conviction: that 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.
Arguably the worst drivers of all are older men, who remain convinced of their driving skills but become stubbornly oblivious to every other road user. I'm not ashamed to say that only last week I dobbed one such driver in to a highway patrolman after he crossed the Rimutaka Hill at a pace that would have made a funeral procession look like the Monaco Grand Prix.
Despite having ample opportunity 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 who pulled over the errant vehicle (a tired old van) told me later that the driver, a man who appeared to be 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 just for hanging things on.
- © Fairfax NZ News