I’m pleased that society is tackling sexism by starting with the things that unfairly benefit women, like car insurance
At last I can learn to drive. The inherent sexism of the car insurance system has been removed. Finally there’s a non-discriminatory marketplace in which I can assert my timid and cautious nature without needing a womb to prove it. And may I add that I’m very pleased with the way our society is tackling sexism: by starting with the things that unfairly benefit women. Maybe they can all be eradicated in my lifetime – and then once I’m dead everyone can move on to removing the stuff that unfairly benefits men. It’s only fair.
These changes to insurance rules have been a very media-generous process: first the widespread reporting that women got cheaper car insurance; then the articles saying this might be stopped; then insurers and women saying it’s unfair that it might be stopped; then other people, largely men who don’t work in insurance, saying it isn’t; then the announcement that changes to European rules meant it definitely would be stopped; then the 10-year legal battle with insurers; then the conclusion that it would be stopped after all; and now, finally, the occasion of the actual stoppage. This paragraph does little justice to the column inches the development has generated. It’s the Cheryl Cole of boring news.
As a non-driver, the ongoing slanging match between male and female motorists puzzles me. My first experience of it was between my parents. When my mother is behind the wheel and my father’s in the car, he has a lot to say about what she’s doing wrong – but, when the roles are reversed, my mother barely comments. As a child, I wanted to think this meant that my dad, and by extension men, were better drivers. That’s what I wanted to think, but somehow it didn’t ring true. I suspected it was more likely to mean that my dad cared more about the process of driving – that, for him, not driving rankled.
Personally I love not driving, from which we can conclude either that I’m not a real man or that some elements of people’s personalities aren’t determined by their gender. Or both. But I know men who seem genuinely to believe that the world is a safer place when they’re driving rather than a woman – and who certainly aren’t distracted from that view by insurers’ willingness to indemnify female drivers more cheaply. Presumably, rather than believing it has any statistical basis, they put that down to the fluctuating emotions of the female-dominated, profit-averse insurance industry; they then counter using phrases such as “spatial awareness”, “parallel parking” and “that silly cow sitting on a box junction”.
Such men also claim that women drivers’ greater propensity to be tentative makes them more dangerous. Driving, they argue, is a “grasp the nettle” type scenario in which clear, strong and decisive actions are safer. Obviously sometimes that’s true and sometimes it isn’t. Some accidents will be caused by drivers being too cautious and some by them being too confident. I don’t know which side is best to err on – but the underwriters seem to have a hunch. Of course all of that’s only even relevant if you accept the generalisation that female drivers will tend to be less confident than male (which I basically do, as it happens, especially if we are also using the word “confident” as a euphemism).
These male motorists’ rhetorical problem arises from the interchangeability of the words “better” and “safer” when referring to driving. This has all the hallmarks of the greater linguistic fluency that was apparently wily women’s consolation prize when the men nabbed all that spatial awareness. Chauvinist men don’t really think they’re safer drivers – and neither do they want to be. They just think they’re better – that they can make cars go fast and accurately. I have several male friends who are clearly brilliant at driving and yet drive dangerously. They go faster than they should, and closer to other objects than they need. It shows tremendous skill but would only be the safest option if they were being chased by an assassin or needed to get somewhere quickly to defuse a bomb. Those are the dream “grasp the nettle” scenarios in which behaving dangerously is, in a wider context, safer.
Driving a car too fast without bumping into things requires dexterity and mechanical understanding. Doing it well, and watching it done well, is satisfying. Sadly, like so many physical skills that men are good at developing, it has virtually no practical applications. There are hardly more jobs in it than there are in ventriloquism: you could drive racing cars or ambulances, otherwise you should slow down and check your mirrors. Not in that order.
“I think there is a lot of resistance… to the idea that, at some level humans are by nature aggressive animals,” said Professor David Carrier last week. He wasn’t talking about chauvinist driving but about the fist. Its evolved design is not, according to the professor, the product of prioritising the precise over the brutal. The unique structure of the human hand makes it a brilliant implement for multi-tasking. “There may… be only one set of skeletal proportions that allows the hand to function both as a mechanism for precise manipulation and as a club for striking,” Carrier and Michael H Morgan wrote in The Journal of Experimental Biology. “Ultimately, the evolutionary significance of the human hand may lie in its remarkable ability to serve two seemingly incompatible, but intrinsically human, functions.” Playing the harp and smacking people in the face.
On a deep evolutionary level, humans enjoy dangerous activities: hitting each other, driving quickly round corners, careering down snowy mountainsides attached to slidey pieces of wood, giving one another pieces of their mind. Even those of us who never do such things, nonetheless sense the appeal. Violence comes naturally; caution we learn from experience.
George Entwistle must have felt bitter when Nick Pollard, in his report on the BBC’s handling of the Jimmy Savile revelations, criticised him for being “unnecessarily cautious”. It’s essentially saying he overly suppressed his instincts, he listened to his head not his heart, he thought too much about the consequences of his actions – which action has had disastrous unthought-of consequences. Pollard may as well have said that Entwistle’s primary failing was just being wrong in retrospect, being unlucky.
He should have grasped the nettle, put his foot on the accelerator, charged towards the mammoth, defying fate with a scream: “Bad things can’t happen to me!” If I felt like that, I’d take a driving test.
David Mitchell’s autobiography, Back Story, is out now