Why gender matters when stemming the road toll

Violence and death on the roads affect women and men differently, writes Margaret Brown.

File photo: Pexels

File photo: Pexels

Men and women are affected differently by road safety issues. Currently, policymakers often fail to recognise the different ways that men and women use roads, and the ways they are killed or injured on the roads. If they did, road safety policies could be more effective in promoting safety for everyone.

The road toll is largely a male problem.

In Australia, men are almost two and a half times more likely to be killed in a car crash than women.

For example, of the 117 people who died on South Australian roads in 2023, 85 were male. Men who die on the roads are much more likely to have been drink driving than women. Also, they are much more likely to test positive for methamphetamine, THC or ecstasy or a combination of these drugs.

The statistics for injuries requiring hospitalisation are similar. Men are also more likely to be involved in a speed-related accident and to not wear a seatbelt.

However, women have high rates of distraction, such as texting or eating while driving, and have just as many minor injuries on the roads as men.

The difference in men’s and women’s behaviours that cause injury or death highlight that different driver education campaigns need to be created for men and for women.

There are very few examples in television advertisements that target men and aim to reduce rates of speeding and drink driving.

Cars are also used in deliberate acts of violence in ways that are different for men and women.

Men are involved in 78 per cent of suicides (or suspected suicides) using vehicles on the roads.

But we also know that cars are used in acts of gendered violence. For example, Hannah Clarke was burned to death with her children in her car by her estranged husband in 2020.

Other examples involve men running over their partners, sometimes deliberately, although they are often charged with causing death by dangerous driving so the deliberate violence is underreported. Men who use coercive control against their partners often control the partner’s use of their car.

Women’s fears about male violence also affect how they use transport.

Many women do not catch public transport at night and some avoid walking because of safety concerns. Yet women make up the majority of the poor and the elderly, so some are more reliant on public transport or walking. Some women thus find that their mobility and participation in society are restricted because of safety issues.

Car safety features such as seatbelts and airbags are designed for the average male body, and crash test dummies have traditionally been modelled on men.

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More research is needed with women’s bodies in mind to ensure women are equally protected when they are involved in an accident.

The love of large, fast cars is also associated with our perceptions of masculinity (although some women enthusiastically join in) with a lot of car advertising encouraging anti-social masculine behaviours, such as driving fast in powerful cars.

The traditional male dominance of the trucking industry and the masculine associations of the monster utes and four-wheel drives fuels this connection between masculinity, driving and speed (and sometimes drink drinking).

The increasing number of large vehicles such as SUVs and pick-up trucks in suburban areas, promoted by advertising that calls on certain types of masculinity, is a danger to pedestrians including children and other drivers.

It is difficult to counter these associations because cars have long been seen as a central part of masculine identity.

Policymakers in some countries have recognised gender differences on the roads.

For example, Cyprus conducted a road safety awareness campaign aimed at pregnant women and mothers. A road safety campaign in Belgium aimed at men claimed that women are not attracted to men who drive too fast.

In France the government’s Women Manifesto for Safer Roads encouraged women to say: “I do not ride in this car … Drive more slowly. Really slower. You are dangerous. Hand me the keys … We can all abandon the old role playing that sees men as conquerors and women as accommodating. Let’s refuse to be accommodating. We will make the road safer for us, for them, the men we love.” A more recent French NGO-led campaign urges men to “drive like a woman”.

In Australia, government policy fails to question the masculinist love of large, fast cars.

In fact, it often reinforces it with infrastructure policies designed to keep the traffic moving quickly. Speed has long been seen as essential for growth, progress and prosperity. Government policy does not prioritise the safety of children in car parks, the safety of women on public transport, or the right to mobility of older people or people with disability.

State and federal governments claim that their transport policies meet the needs of all road users and aim to reduce the road toll. To achieve those aims, the policies should consider the different needs of men and women, and different groups of men and women.

They should give equal consideration to all people who use the roads. It is time to acknowledge the associations between masculinity, power and speed are killing men. Policies need to acknowledge the different experiences of women, and should prioritise sustainability, not just keeping the traffic moving.

Margaret Brown is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the University of South Australia and acknowledges the assistance of Kate Leeson in preparing this article.

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