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Miss Daisy’s Doing the Driving Now

November 21, 2012 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Honda has introduced a new version of its subcompact Fit for the Japanese market and it's aimed squarely at women. It comes in pink, white or "eyeshadow brown" with pink interior details. And it features a UV-blocking windshield and "Plasmacluster" air conditioning to keep milady's skin toned and wrinkle-free.

Just so there's no doubt this is a girl thing, Honda has branded it the "She's," with a pink heart serving as the apostrophe.

It's not available in North America yet, but a new study of the gender demographics of U.S. drivers may hasten its rollout here. Women drivers, once the butt of male chauvinist jokes, outnumbered men in this country for the first time in 2010—105.7 million to 104.3 million, according to license figures.

This development "will have major implications on the extent and nature of vehicle demand, energy consumption and road safety," study coauthor Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute told the Associated Press.

That's because women tend to buy smaller, safer and higher-mileage vehicles than men. They also drive less and have lower fatality rates than men.

Since the middle of the past decade, driving as a whole has declined in America, led by a sharp drop in trips and miles covered by young males. Driving by young females has dipped, too, but less than half as much. The difference can be attributed to high unemployment among young adults and the crippling cost of car insurance for under-25 males (but not females), plus more young men than women living with their parents.

One caveat: Recent research has estimated that one-quarter of drivers under 20 have never been licensed and are on the road illegally. So there may be a significant underworld of young male drivers not counted in the driver's license tallies. 

But broader trends are at work as well. Digital media and the Internet deemphasize driving among young technology adapters. "Virtual contact reduces the need for actual contact," Sivak said. Macho car culture has ebbed as complex vehicle innards thin the ranks of shade-tree mechanics. Plus, said travel behavior analyst Nancy McGuckin, "Today's young adults grew up in the back seat of cars stalled in congestion, hearing their folks swear at the endless traffic. Nothing romantic about that!"

The rise of female drivers has apparently ended more than a century of male dominance behind the wheel. In the 1950s, only about half of U.S. women had drivers' licenses, but as more of them entered the workforce they drove steep overall growth in car travel for decades afterward.

Those were great times for automakers, road builders and oil refiners. The industry is adapting on many levels to generally shrinking demand for car travel—scrapping the testosterone-heavy Hummer, for example—but U.S. car companies have yet to refocus much on female customers. Maybe they've been deterred by some past failures in that direction.

Take the 1955 Dodge LaFemme, a pink and white beauty with storage for a matching purse and rain hat. Who remembers that now? In 2000, Ford created a concept minivan with a compact washer/dryer, microwave and vacuum cleaner in the rear hatch, but never brought it to market. I wonder why. As Motoramic blogger Justin Hyde asked, "Why would a soccer mom ever want to be parted from her appliances?"

Surely our ingenious American auto industry can do better than that to profit from the latest demographic trend in U.S. mobility. Government, too, may even need to rethink the design of roadways, parking and safety features with female drivers and their smaller, safer, more efficient vehicles in mind.

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