Women have passed men on the nation's roads. More women than men now have driver's licenses, a reversal of the longtime behind-the-wheel gap 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 trends in driver's licenses from 1995 to 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 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 of 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.
Likewise, in 1995 men with driver's licenses outnumbered women in every age group except those older than 70. By 2010, women outnumbered men among drivers ages 45 and older and from 25 to 29 years old. The share of older women who are on hanging onto their driver's licenses also has also increased.
"I want to be in my own car for as long as possible. I want to be independent for as long as I can," said Diane Spitaliere, 58, a retired government worker in Alexandria.
Male drivers younger than 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.
Rising Internet usage may be part of the reason for the decline in the share of young drivers, especially young men, Mr. Sivak said. A previous study by Michigan's transportation institute published earlier this year found that countries that have higher Internet usage also have a lower rate of teens and young adults with licenses.
"There is some suggestive evidence that Internet contact is reducing the need for personal contact," he said.
Other researchers have theorized that digital media and technology may make driving less desirable and public transportation more convenient. Texting while driving is dangerous and illegal in most states, but there's no risk to texting or working on a laptop while riding a bus or train.
Another reason for the growing disinterest among young men in driving may be that it is "no longer cool, or even possible, [for young men] to work on your own vehicle," travel behavior analyst Nancy McGuckin noted. "The engines are so complex most people don't even change their own oil. Independence, freedom, being able to customize the car to reflect you -- these are not part of young people's association with vehicles."