When it comes to fatal automobile crashes, the more data you collect, the murkier your accident statistics get

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Fools rush in where angels fear to tread

Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism

This week’s Motor Mouth started out as a simple exercise in reinforcing the commonly held notion that women are safer drivers than men. I received a missive from an insurance company, seemingly replete with incontrovertible data that, in pretty much every country, women were involved in fewer fatal collisions than males. Even in today’s rabidly polarized, gender-sensitive polemics, I thought that might be something that a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male should probably have no problem saying in their “outside” voice.

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And, indeed, the numbers seemed to back that assertion up. In country after country, the rate of fatalities amongst men was noticeably higher than for women, usually at a rate of two-to-one, and often 300 per cent — or more! — higher. Indeed, of the almost 200 nations for whom data was compiled, none — not a single one — reported more women dying than men.

So, case closed, right? Column done! Women, as many of us have come to believe, are safer drivers than men. Throw in a few embellishments and some supporting data and, for once, a non-controversial Motor Mouth, my comment section gloriously free of mouth-breathers who get all their “incontrovertible proof” off Twitter — er, make that “X,” now that the head mouth-breather is in charge of “free speech.”

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Unfortunately, nothing, especially anything compiled by statisticians, is ever quite so simple.

For one thing, the data cited — provided by The World Bank and, therefore, ostensibly reliable — is for occupants, and not drivers. More importantly, each country’s data was calculated per 100,000 members of its population, not 100,000 drivers. In other words, the ratio of male-to-female drivers — and the number of miles each drives annually — renders the numbers almost completely useless, at least as it pertains to car safety.

For instance, in the original missive, South Africa was listed as the extreme example of poor road safety, with 34.9 males dying annually in automobile accidents, where only 9.9 females perished. That, saving you the time of reaching for your calculator, is a rating of approximately 3.5:1. Surely, something can be read into that?

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Except that, in South Africa, women are half as likely to hold a driver’s license — just 21.8 per cent of that population does, versus 40.6 per cent for men – with Black Africans most especially poorly represented. Such small numbers might well explain why so many fewer South African women die in auto collisions. Only, according to other data — compiled by the Sunday Timeswomen, especially urban women, are far more likely to take taxis, which are, one assumes, predominantly male-driven.

Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD) officers direct traffic outside the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, on August 21, 2023
Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD) officers direct traffic outside the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, on August 21, 2023 Photo by Marco Longari /Getty

In other words, there’s little logic — or, at least, precious little hard data — to explain why the ratio of auto-related deaths is so skewed male, other than youthful male aggressiveness. Safer driving — slower speeds, obeying traffic lights, etc. — by women may indeed be a contributing factor, but it would be highly doubtful if it accounted for such a wide disparity in South Africa’s road fatalities. That almost half the country’s road fatalities involve alcohol consumption, on the other hand, might.

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Even closer to home, the concept that women are safer drivers takes a bit of a hit. I assumed — and yes, I know the definition of “assume” — when I started researching automobile accident data that women would be under-represented in the causation of fatalities. In fact, I initially Googled “Why are women safer drivers than men?”

I did not get the response I was expecting. For instance, while according to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) men cause more fatal accidents — by a factor of three to one — women drivers actually cause more accidents than men per mile driven. Men, again statistically, drive faster and are issued far more traffic tickets, which explains their causing more dramatic collisions. On the other hand, men are four times as likely to drive under the influence — so why do women cause more collisions per mile?

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A stock illustration of a driver drinking a beer while behind the wheel
A stock illustration of a driver drinking a beer while behind the wheel Photo by Shutterstock

Adding to the confusion is the fact that, again according to statistics, more women die in collisions that involve a male driver. Part of that is explained away by males having historically bought larger vehicles — pickups, SUVs, etc. But, until most recently, automotive safety technologies and testing did not take into account the female form factor, meaning women have been traditionally less protected by onboard passive safety devices — seat-belts, airbags, etc. — than men.

Wade through it all and it’s extremely difficult to say categorically which sex is the safer driver. Certainly the fatality numbers say, in America at least, that men cause the more dangerous collisions. On the other hand, I’d like to see what the numbers might say after being normalized for size of vehicle and substance abuse, leaving only “aggressive” driving as the causal factor (the World Health Organization says an under-25 male is 2.7 times as likely to die on the road than an equivalent female). Stricter DUI laws — like the ones in Norway — and tougher enforcement could have an effect on the former, but, I suspect, short of temporarily neutering young men, there’s nothing to be done about the latter.

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What is obvious wading through all the data on road safety — including this Motor Mouth on the effect of raising and lowering speed limits — is that the data more often confuses than illuminates. Why, for instance, is Pakistan — known for minimizing the rights of women, and where the vast preponderance of drivers are male — the only country (with a significant number of road users) in which the number of male and female deaths per population virtually identical? I’m sure there’s an explanation, but I suspect it defies the simplistic “all men are aggressive” or “women can’t drive” arguments.

Traffic on the German autobahn, below a set of speed-limit signs
Traffic on the German autobahn, below a set of speed-limit signs Photo by Getty

A couple of consistencies do stand out, however. The most glaring is that, according to the World Bank, the vast preponderance of dangerous-driving nations (on a per 100,000 population basis) are in southern regions. Africa, not unexpectedly, is by far the worst afflicted continent, but then, so is South America. The Middle and Far East are not far behind. The World Bank explains this by noting a relationship between GDP and propensity for unsafe motoring. Though no doubt holding some validity, some of the poorly-performing countries in South America are hardly poor; and certainly Saudi Arabia, with the third-worst overall fatality rate, is not destitute.

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The other factor is that training seems crucial for road safety. Japan and the United Kingdom are cited for both overall safety and having less of a gender gap in crash statistics compared with other countries. The United States, meanwhile, with its hodge-podge of rules and enforcement, actually has worse numbers than Turkey, Egypt, and, perhaps the most insulting considering today’s politics, Russia. As for Canada, we’re kinda mid-pack amongst developed nations, not nearly deserving of the self-congratulation we laud upon ourselves for our stringent speed limits.

In fact, driving in Italy — usually denigrated for its crazy and aggressive drivers — is no more dangerous than driving in Canada, both countries registering 5.3 road-related fatalities per 100,000 people. And Germany — the land of the autobahn and 200-kilometre-an-hour cruising speeds — has a dramatically lower fatal crash rate than Canada. In fact, Germans die at less than a third of the rate of drivers in America, where 55-mph limits still reign supreme.

Like I said, it’s complicated.

David Booth picture

David Booth

Canada’s leading automotive journalists with over 20+ years of experience in covering the industry

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