Women are "worst drivers"?

So proclaims the U.K.'s Telegraph in response to a study on spatial navigation.

By Tracy Clark-Flory
January 5, 2008 4:20AM (UTC)
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What is it with spatial studies from British research universities being declared evidence that straight women are terrible drivers? Last year, the University of Warwick published a study finding that straight women have the poorest map-reading ability of all sexual orientations. Coverage of the research of course spun it into stereotype-supporting evidence, effectively shouting, "See, see -- women can't drive!" Now, a new study from the Queen Mary University of London finds that straight women and gay men simply suck at driving.

Or does it? Today, the U.K.'s illustrious Telegraph trumpets in a headline: "Women and Gay Men Are 'Worst Drivers.'" Funny that despite the, ahem, "quote marks," nowhere in the piece do any of the researchers bestow the title of "worst drivers." Perhaps that's because the study wasn't about driving ability -- which is far more complicated than simply navigating the correct route from Point A to Point B -- but about spatial navigation and memory. Participants navigated through virtual worlds and were asked to perform tricky tasks. In one, "participants had to traverse eight 'arms' from a circular junction to find hidden rewards," according to Science Daily. In another, they were asked to escape from a virtual pool by locating a hidden platform.


Indeed, straight women and gay men took longer to successfully complete these virtual tasks. But find me a headline that declares, "Straight Women and Gay Men Are 'Worst Swimmers'" or ... 'Worst Treasure Finders.'" Those truer headlines just don't have the same ring of a beloved sex stereotype confirmed. Surely, the Telegraph's editors couldn't be expected to turn away from the yuk-yuk potential of publishing a photo of a busy roadway with the caption "Be afraid: Women or gay men could be behind the wheel of any car" in favor of fact-based reporting.

If anything, this research -- carried out, mind you, on only 140 volunteers -- indicates that straight women and gay men are weaker behind-the-wheel navigators in new environments. As lead researcher Qazi Rahman says: "Driving in a novel environment which is poor in cues is where these [navigational] differences are likely to show up most. Women are going to take a lot longer to reach their destination, making more errors, taking wrong turn, et-cetera. They need more rich local landmarks." Of course, studies have also shown that women have better spatial memory -- so maybe they navigate better than men on familiar or well-marked roadways.

Let's say it together now: None of this amounts to evidence that straight women and gay men are murderous motorists to be feared on the road.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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