Women have passed men on the nation's roads. More women than men now have driver's licenses, a reversal of a longtime gender gap behind the wheel that transportation researchers say is likely to have safety and economic implications.
If current trends continue, the gap will only widen. The share of teens and young adults of both sexes with driver's licenses is declining, but the decline is greater for young men, according to a study by the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute. The study looked at gender trends in driver's licenses between 1995 and 2010.
"The changing gender demographics will have major implications on the extent and nature of vehicle demand, energy consumption, and road safety," predicted Michael Sivak, co-author of the study. Women are more likely than men to purchase smaller, safer and more fuel-efficient cars; to drive less, and to have a lower fatality rate per distance driven, he said.
The high cost of auto insurance for young men may be a factor in the trend.
Over the 15 years the study covered, the share of men ages 25 to 29 with driver's licenses dropped 10.6 percent. The share of women of the same age with driver's licenses declined by about half that amount, 4.7 percent.
Male drivers outnumbered women drivers from the moment the first Ford Model T rolled off the assembly line in 1908, and through most of the last century. But the gap gradually closed. By 2010, 105.7 million women had licenses, compared with 104.3 million men.
Rising Internet usage may be part of the reason for the decline in the share of young drivers, especially young men, Sivak said: "There is some suggestive evidence that Internet contact is reducing the need for personal contact."
Another reason for the growing disinterest among young men in driving may be the erosion of the "car-fetish society," travel behavior analyst Nancy McGuckin said.
There also may be economic reasons for the shift, McGuckin's research indicates. Employment of 16- to 24-year-olds as a share of all workers has declined. It may be that unemployment and underemployment have made auto insurance unaffordable for young men, said Alan Pisarski, author of the Transportation Research Board's comprehensive "Commuting in America" reports on U.S. travel trends. "Insurance for males under 25 is just colossally expensive," he said.