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More US women than men have a driver's license

As this month’s presidential election clearly demonstrated, there’s a significant demographic shift taking place in America – and you don’t have to check the voter rolls to confirm that. Simply look around you on the highway.

More women than men now have a driver’s license, according to a new study by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, or UMTRI, that looked at gender trends in driver's licenses between 1995 and 2010.

The gap is expected to continue widening, with the study showing that the number of Americans with a driver’s license has been shrinking over the past 15 years. The rate of decline for 25- to 29-year-old men has been twice as large as for women.

“The changing gender demographics will have major implications on the extent and nature of vehicle demand, energy consumption and road safety,” said Michael Sivak, co-author of the study.

While women still hadn’t earned the right to vote in most of the country by the time Henry Ford rolled out his first Model T, efforts to keep women off the road gained little momentum during the early 20th Century, said Margaret Walsh, author of "Gender and the Automobile in the United States."

“They were numerically in the minority,” writes Walsh, “and men often ridiculed their driving.” However, she added, “Women, like men, could see the advantages of freer movement.”

By the 1950s, millions of women had passed the driving test – though in the Eisenhower era, when women were expected to stay home and raise a family, only half of those reaching driving age had yet received a license.

But as the idea of women’s liberation began to take hold, the trend shifted into gear.  By 1995, the number of women with a license lagged only slightly behind men, 87.4 million to 89.2 million.  And the gap reversed itself by 2010, with 105.7 million licensed American women compared to 104.3 million men.

The UMTRI study finds the gap varies by age.  There’s been a notable decline in recent years in the number of teens getting their licenses. Nearly one in four 19-year-olds didn’t bother as of 2008, the Michigan research group discovered in a study released last summer, compared to one in eight back in the ‘70s.

Meanwhile, the new UMTRI report shows that while the share of men between the ages of 25 and 29 getting licenses has dropped 10.6 percent over the last 15 years, it has fallen just 4.7 percent among women.

Among older drivers, however, men still dominate.  That likely reflects the fact that there are slightly more men born in the U.S. than women by a ratio of 105 to 100. But the ladies catch up after the age of 70 because men are less likely to live as long – with a life expectancy of 75 years compared to 80 years for women. The UMTRI study also shows older women hanging onto their licenses longer.

Margaret Dunning landed in the headlines after turning 102 earlier this year – and still driving the Packard 740 Roadster she has had for 82 years.  Describing herself as “just a farm girl,” she learned how to drive at 8 and was officially licensed by 12, after her father died.

As to why fewer men are getting their driver's license, experts point to a variety of factors, including economics: vehicles have become far more costly, especially for insurance, in recent years.

Sivak suggests that the rise of the Internet and the increased use of smartphone technology may also be at play. “Virtual contact,” he said, “reduces the need for actual contact.”

On the other hand, women may see getting a license and a car as a sign of liberation.

But who’s really more likely to be the better driver?  Various studies come up with conflicting results.

A 2011 UMTRI study published in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention found that female drivers are far more likely to run into one another at a far higher rate than pure random chance would suggest. Crashes involving two women were “over-represented,” according to Sivak. 

Then again, a 2011 MetLife Auto & Home American Safety Pulse Poll found that women get fewer tickets for reckless driving and die in accidents about 50 percent less often than men.

Bad driver jokes aside, it seems most women recognize who’s doing a better job on the road. According to the new MetLife survey, 51 percent of women believe they’re better drivers, with only 25 percent pointing to men; the rest are undecided.  Among males included in the survey, just 39 percent claim they rule the roads, with 26 percent pointing to their female counterparts.