More women drivers than men hit the road in U.S.

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WASHINGTON -- 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.

Over the 15 years the study covered, the share of men ages 25 to 29 years old 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, the year the automobile became popular, and through most of the past century. In the 1950s, when only about half adult women had driver's licenses, jokes about women drivers were a staple of comedians.

But the gap gradually closed. By 1995, men with driver's licenses slightly outnumbered women, 89.2 million to 87.4 million. By 2010, 105.7 million women had licenses, compared with 104.3 million men.

Male drivers under age 44 are still slightly more numerous than women of the same age, but that's only because young men outnumber young women in the general population, the study said. There now are 105 boys born each year for every 100 girls in the U.S. Women outnumber men later in life because they live longer -- an average of 80 years for women, compared with about 75 years for men.

One 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, Ms. McGuckin's research indicates. Employment of 16- to 24-year-olds as a share of all workers has declined. At the same time, the rate of young men ages 18 to 34 years old living at home has been going up and is greater than the rate of young women living at home.

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.

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