I went karting earlier this week in London, at the excellent Docklands Raceway in Greenwich, with the fine folks at Penguin and a number of intrepid, lead-footed souls from the top UK bestsellers (Waterstone’s, WH Smith, Borders, etc.). The kindly track manager told us only afterwards (thankfully), as we sipped Peronis in the bar, that in one instance a kart (they can go 45 mph) had flipped, albeit at a former facility, and the driver had to be air-lifted to the hospital.
The evening wasn’t intended as a study of driving behavior, but it was hard not to notice the gender disparity in the race results: i.e., the top finishers, in total laps, with a few exceptions, were largely male. Whether this has to do with skills per se, risk-taking, or just cultural pressure and expectation is a huge, messy issue that I won’t plunge into here. But studies bear out that males, by just about every objective external measure (speed, following distance, etc.) drive more aggressively. Perhaps some of this is hard-wired. The noted psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, for example, has noted in his controversial book The Essential Difference, that when a group of plastic cars are left for tots to play around with, the boys tend to do things like start ramming into one another, while the girls tend to ride around more carefully — when they can actually get a car (this raises a potential topic for a study: Do societies with higher numbers of women drivers have superior traffic safety records than those more dominated by men?).
And it was certainly the men who were getting into more scrapes at the Docklands (I myself netted what was said to be the evening’s only “black flag,” for having passed another racer under a yellow flag condition; I blamed, weakly, insufficient knowledge of the rules). Whatever this evening proved or disproved about gender and driving, I was reminded of a finding by the U.K. Driving Standards Agency: Males tend to have a higher pass rate on their “practical” driving tests (the in-car portion), suggesting confidence and perhaps higher ability; but ironically, the ones who do best tend to have the highest accident rates. Driving “skill” is a mixed blessing indeed.