Who is safer on the road, men or women?
March 08, 2021
Gender equality is a basic human right. And when it comes to transport, the gender gap is bigger than most of us imagine. As two female road safety experts, we have been asking ourselves a very simple—but key—question: are men and women equally safe when using a road?
Safety is vital. A broad array of studies show that unsecure transport facilities and infrastructure constrain women’s lives, by limiting their access to education and social services. For example, without safe and secure travel options, women simply can’t take advantage of economic and social opportunities.
In terms of road safety, the implications for female travelers are also large but, unfortunately, less evident. Despite not—yet—being a well-researched area, road safety as viewed through a gender lens is receiving more and more attention. The Academic Expert Group identifies gender and equity as among the areas most affected by road safety, together with health, poverty, environment, employment, education and sustainable communities.
Safe transport must support different mobility patterns and the needs of both women and men who, studies show, travel differently. Women tend to make more stops when using a car, and they rely on public transport more than men do. They may avoid cycling, in fear of dangers on the road. So far, there is fragmented evidence on the behavioral aspects and social patterns of road users disaggregated by gender and regarding how gender relates to road-related casualties.
Women have 47% higher risk of serious injury in a car crash than men, and a five times higher risk of whiplash injury. Simulated crashes do not predict well female injuries in real crashes, as most laboratory models do not account for differences between women’s and men’s bodies, especially in the spine (e.g. women are smaller and have smaller vertebra). This, combined with less musculature, produces a combined response of the head, neck and spine to the crash forces that is different to what happens to men. Intrinsic gender differences in the skeleton may be one reason for higher rates of injury in women. In simple words: cars are designed for men, and not for women. This, we think, is something that urgently needs to be changed.
Despite women’s and children’s physical vulnerabilities during a crash, three times more men than women die in road crashes globally. Men die on the roads mainly as car drivers and motorcycle riders, while women are killed mainly as pedestrians and car passengers. The reason behind this is simple: men’s driving behavior. Research in the field confirms that men:
tend to be involved in a road crash earlier in their driving career
are prone to drive at higher speed
exhibit risky driving behavior and
have less regard for traffic laws
Hypothetically, if all road users drove like women, road mortality rates across the EU, for example, would be about 20 percent lower than the average. Yet, despite these statistics, policies or countermeasures fail to factor in gender differences.
Finally, a deeper understanding of the problem must inform future planning, especially in light of the second Decade of Action for Road Safety, 2021-2030. It is clear that many countries have the proper tools to identify basic problem areas in road safety, though solid numbers from developing countries are harder to come by. Complete data is essential to:
better understand the road safety problem
properly inform and shape road safety strategies
and promote the right decisions at the level of the road safety action plans
To investigate how campaigns may affect different genders, research shows that men are more likely to think that fear-based messaging will influence others, not themselves, yet they see themselves responding to positive, humor-based appeals. The opposing findings are true for women. Gender-differentiated campaigns could be used to target specific groups, like men who speed or people who drink and drive.
Thus, our simple question about road safety is answered with a clear NO. Women are less safe, no matter their role when using the road, despite being those with a safer behavior.
Authors: Alina Florentina Burlacu, Senior Transport Specialist | Karla Gonzalez Carvajal, Practice Manager, Transport, Europe
This blog was originally posted as a World Bank blog — part of the Transport for Development series.