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You Go, Girl (But Wait for the Green Light)

Young female drivers catching up to males in accidents

TUESDAY, Jan. 8, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Another gender gap is closing, but this one won't have females tooting their horns with pride.

The youngest female drivers are catching up to their male counterparts when it comes to being road hazards, statistics show. In 2000, 16-year-old girls got into 175 car wrecks per 1,000 licensed drivers, up from 160 in 1990, according to recent figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Meanwhile, the wreck rate for boys that age fell to 210 from 216, the agency says.

The chief reason: The number of miles girls aged 16 to 19 drive each year has soared 75 percent since 1975, to 6,870, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. For boys, mileage is up by only 16 percent, to 8,200 a year, over the past 25 years. The trends were reported yesterday by USA Today.

The number of licensed female drivers has also risen sharply since 1975, while the increase among males has been much more modest, the insurance institute says.

Susan Ferguson, vice president for research at the institute, says the surge in road time doesn't apply only to young women.

"Mileage is going up more among women in every single age group," says Ferguson, who credits more women in the workforce for most of the increase.

All that added travel is costing more young girls their lives, statistics show. Although the death rate for all drivers ages 15 to 20 dropped 11 percent between 1990 and 2000, fatalities among girls that age rose 4 percent.

Ferguson says that while men, and especially the youngest ones, continue to be disproportionately involved in the most serious crashes, young females are catching up. Like boys, "they're inexperienced and they're young."

Still, she says, girls tend to drive less aggressively than boys do, and to drink and drive less. They also collect fewer traffic tickets, and have fewer convictions for road infractions.

Insurance carriers say the narrowing gap is borne out by higher premiums for the youngest female motorists. USA Today, for example, cites a State Farm official who says rates for boys in 1985 were 61 percent higher than those for girls -- a difference that has since slipped to 41 percent.

Dan Kummer, director of auto insurance for the National Association of Independent Insurers, says his members -- who write about 40 percent of the nation's auto policies -- are reporting similar trends. "What State Farm is seeing, the whole industry is seeing," he says.

Although much of the difference can be attributed to more road time, Kummer adds girls appear to be picking up some of the worst habits that teenage boys bring to the wheel. They're somewhat more aggressive and take more risks than they used to, he says.

At least one professional driver goes even further.

"The young girls on the street are just as bad as the boys" when it comes to driving too fast and tailgating, says Shirley Muldowney, a four-time world champion drag racer and the sport's grande dame.

When Muldowney broke into drag racing in 1965 -- after a youthful career in street racing in Schenectady, N.Y., that made her, she admits, unpopular with the police -- she was "an oddity." Last September, upon returning from a race in Indianapolis to her home computer, she says, her e-mailbox was stuffed with at least 200 messages from young sisters in speed wanting to follow in her skid marks. Women now make up at least half the spectators in motor sports, she says.

However, Muldowney says the shift isn't merely a revved-up attitude. She blames some of the problem on a "false sense of security" teens get when they drive sport utility vehicles, which are popular with parents who perceive them as heavier and safer than smaller cars. Moreover, she's no fan of teens who drive while chatting away on their cell phones -- another distraction that didn't exist a decade ago.

What To Do

The bottom line, road experts say, is don't assume your teenage daughter is going to be safer behind the wheel than your teenage son. Educate them equally about safe driving and the importance of wearing seat belts.

For more road safety statistics and information, try the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. You can also check out the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

SOURCES: Interviews with Susan Ferguson, Ph.D., senior vice president, research, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Arlington, Va.; Dan Kummer, director, auto insurance, National Association of Independent Insurers, Des Plaines, Ill.; Shirley Muldowney, four-time world drag racing champion; Jan. 7, 2002, USA Today
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