In the mid-20th century, driving was synonymous with masculinity. Men picked women up before a date. They took the wheel for long car trips. More fundamentally, they drove to work, while their wife kept house. Hey, maybe they even drove a muscle car.
As feminism changed cultural values and women entered the workforce, the gendered driving gap has slowly been closing. New data from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute shows just how much.
Today, 41% of drivers on the road at any given time are female compared with only 23% in 1963, researcher Michael Sivak calculates based on data from the Federal Highway Administration. Put another way: In the early 1960s, men on average drove twice as many miles as women. Today, that’s down to one and a half times.
Equality in driving is a good thing to the extent that cars are synonymous with American ideals of personal freedom–like in Thelma and Louise, when the title characters take off in a 1966 Ford Thunderbird to escape their depressing lives. It’s also good for the environment, because women are more likely to purchase smaller, safer, and more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Women are also safer drivers: “Females drive less and tend to have a lower fatality rate per distance driven,” writes Sivak.
But focusing on the gender gap misses the bigger picture. Both sexes are driving more, it’s just that the rate that men drive has increased less fast than women. Over the past 50 years, the average annual distance driven by men is up 33% vs. 89% for women. Men still drive about 15,000 miles a year on average today, and women drive 10,000.
The real societal change will happen when both sexes start driving less, not more. Many cities outside of the U.S. are already encouraging everyone to go car-free. In the U.S., change has been slower. In places like Los Angeles, commuters spend 90 hours a year stuck in traffic–and that means both sexes aren’t getting anywhere.