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Archive for December 29th, 2009

On Gender and Parking

As I note in Traffic, there has been some research into parking and gender, ranging from the indefatigable John Trinkaus’ “informal looks” at “No Parking — Fire Zone” violations at a shopping mall (women driving SUVs were the leading offenders), to suggestions that female drivers spent more time searching for the “best” parking spot (to which the above cartoon alludes).

Now, Claudia C. Wolf and colleagues at Germany’s Ruhr University-Bochum have explored the idea of parking ability, in a new paper in Psychological Research titled “Sex differences in parking are affected by biological and social factors.”

As the authors note, some previous work has found men to have a slight edge on certain cognitive tasks involving spatiality, in particular the “Mental Rotation Test,” while women have, in some cases, outperformed men on more language oriented spheres, like the “phonological retrieval in the letter fluency task.” But real-world equivalents for things like mental rotation have not been in abundance. Which is why the authors headed to the parking lot.

During everyday life—and obviously especially during parking—individuals are required to imagine themselves from different perspectives, which involves mental rotation. A driver who steers towards a parking space must predict the outcome of spatial relationships between objects (including own car, parking space, further cars, and kerb) after changes in viewpoint, which arise from the car’ s—and thus the driver’ s motion.

But curiously, they note, “the cognitive mechanisms involved in parking have never been investigated.” Of course, it’s not just innate spatial ability that’s involved; confidence in one’s ability to do the task matters as well. This belief is “domain specific,” and can socially conditioned by stereotypes, etc.

For the test, the authors asked subjects, divided into similar levels of driving experience, to park an Audi A6 in various ways (back in, parallel, etc.) in a closed-off multi-story car park. The result? “The present data revealed a sex difference in parking performance in driving beginners as well as in more experienced drivers.” Women took longer to park the car, which might be seen as an offshoot of lesser risk-taking behavior by females in driving, but interestingly, even though men parked more quickly, they also parked more accurately, as measured by distance to neighboring cars.

Before we get into a whole “are men or women better drivers” argument, let’s remember that men also come out on top on another variable of driving performance: The tendency to get oneself killed or injured. And this was a relatively small sample. And it’s just parking, after all. And then there’s that question, raised by the authors themselves, of how much this is in any sense innate — always a dangerous word — and how much is generated by social expectations or other feedback loops along the way:

Additionally, unequal base levels of parking performance — which could be due to unequal spatial skills in unexperienced drivers — may have resulted in differential feedback during training of parking skills, leading to a change in self-assessment and thus differential behaviour and achievement… [I]n a recent driving simulator study, it was found that women, whose self-concept was manipulated by confronting them with the stereotype that females are poor drivers, were twice as likely to collide with pedestrians as women who were not reminded of this stereotype.

Strangely, just after reading this paper early yesterday, I came across an item in the BBC about new ‘car parks for women’ in China.

The women-only car park in Shijiazhuang city is also painted in pink and light purple to appeal to female tastes.

Official Wang Zheng told AFP news agency the car park was meant to cater to women’s “strong sense of colour and different sense of distance”.

The parking bays are one metre (3ft) wider than normal spaces, he said.

Were the Chinese government ministers reading Wolf, et al’s paper? And are they taking a potentially biologically innate, and perhaps marginal, difference, and whipping it up into an ever-perpetuating, and debilitating, social construct of drivers with particular, gendered needs? (not to mention the environmental impact of all that extra asphalt — three feet times the soon to be many, many millions of Chinese women drivers).

(thanks Peter)

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Posted on Tuesday, December 29th, 2009 at 6:04 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Slate.com Transport column to me at: info@howwedrive.com.

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