CHICAGO – Molly Sutton finds it challenging to ignore a text message when she’s driving. The 18-year-old high school senior said it’s hard to wait until the next stoplight.
“I know it’s not safe because there’s proof with all the crashes and everything, but it’s one of those things you don’t think much of or you think you still have some control over,” she said.
Her friend Claire Quinn, 18, finds it annoying when someone in front of her drives slowly, but she doesn’t think she’s a risky driver.
“Where do I start?” said Quinn’s passenger, Matt Parilli, 17, cataloguing his friend’s driving shortcomings. “She’s crying in the car because there’s snow on the ground, or she’s in a rush to get to school.”
Since the dawn of the automobile, teenage boys have been pegged as the more aggressive and risky drivers, with inflated insurance bills to prove it. But the gap in driving risks appears to be closing, according to insurance industry officials and a new report from a major insurer.
The Allstate Foundation, part of insurance giant Allstate Corp., says in a newly released “Shifting Teen Attitudes: The State of Teen Driving 2009” that teenage girls admit to speeding, texting and acting aggressively behind the wheel more often than their male counterparts.
The trend hasn’t translated into females becoming as big a risk behind the wheel as males, according to insurers. But if the trend continues, that could result in higher insurance rates down the road.
“Experience still shows female drivers are safer than boys at this age,” Allstate spokesman Raleigh Floyd said. “Until those figures change, our rating isn’t going to change.”
Still, the overall risk factor for girls is rising as evidenced by insurance rates. Twenty years ago, it cost twice as much to insure a male teen driver as a female, said Thomas DeFalco, an actuary at the New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Co. Today, young men pay between 20 percent and 30 percent more than young women.
“We’ve seen the difference between young men and young women getting smaller,” DeFalco said. “There is still a gap, but it’s getting smaller all the time.”
DeFalco said insurers don’t necessarily look at the reasons teen boys get into more crashes than teen girls, but they do set rates based on that difference. He said he doubted crash statistics of teen girls would surpass that of teen boys, but he added that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.
According to the Allstate study, one in four teen girls reported frequently reading and writing texts and e-mails while driving, compared with 15 percent of boys.
“They’re bored while driving, so they try to find other things to do,” said Kathy Clausen, co-owner of A-Adams School of Driving. “Most of them will tell you their parents do it.”
Clausen said instructors preach to their teen drivers about the dangers of using a cell phone or texting while driving.
“Texting is so insane,” she said. “I can’t believe people would think for a second they could handle that.”
According to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, gender-based insurance rates are a tradition in the insurance world. Higher insurance rates for young male drivers related to the fact that they drove more frequently and, therefore, had a greater risk of getting into a crash than young female drivers, a spokesman said.
Differences still remain for young drivers, but most insurance companies no longer set different rates for men and women by age 25, according to the association.
Sam Belden, vice president at Insurance.com, said data compiled through the online agency show premiums for 16-year-old girl drivers have risen about $500 over the last two years, while those for boys in the same age group have been roughly flat.
“I think probably the biggest culprit is driver distraction,” said Belden, adding texting is a standout factor. “It’s a trend with everybody, but teens tend to text more. Between DVD players and video game systems and things that people are putting into vehicles, there are lots of distractions, for teens in particular who are less experienced in driving.”
Kristen Marzano, 17, has had her license for about five months and acknowledged sometimes she puts on her makeup or fixes her hair in the car – or tries to fiddle with the adapter for her MP3 player.
“It’s mostly I wait until the last minute to do everything,” she said. “If I’m going to drive, I’m running out the door, dropping things. I guess it’s just being disorganized.”
In the Allstate study, 16 percent of teen girls admitted to aggressive behavior behind the wheel compared with 13 percent of teen boys, but Marzano disagreed.
“I have an older brother; he just turned 20. Driving with him before I got my license, he seemed to be more angry whenever someone cut him off or took his parking spot,” she said. “He got pretty flustered.”