As good drivers, women overtook men long ago. Now they're looking under the bonnet, too, writes Ann Treneman
For years I have known exactly what to do when the car breaks down, or makes a dreadful noise or starts to steam. Make a phone call. So the other day when the temperature gauge surpassed the red zone, I headed for the phone. But that was broken, too, and so I did the unthinkable: I opened the bonnet and looked inside.

In this mini-breakthrough I am not alone: such behaviour is part of a trend that shows women are finally beginning to feel at home with their cars. By almost any measure, women are travelling in the fast lane: at the moment there are five women learning to drive for every three men and, within seven years, the number of male and female drivers will be equal.

The future of the road is female. Women purchase 50 per cent of new or used cars but they have a deciding influence on 80 per cent of purchases. They aren't impressed by speeding (1 per cent find it exciting compared to 40 per cent of men) and were involved in only one-third of accidents. In 1994, in England and Wales, men were found guilty of 97 per cent of dangerous driving and 93 per cent of drink driving.

Such figures mean that a woman's hand on the wheel inspires discounts from insurers and, the AA estimates that a 17-year-old girl could pay pounds 110 less than her twin brother on an average car. By 21, that gap can widen to pounds 194. "Best of all are premiums on hot hatches - a 20-year-old girl could drive a Golf GTi for around pounds 721 less than a man," says an AA article called "Women, the new driving force".

And part of that is a new confidence when it comes to car maintenance. The RAC notes that lack of basic car maintenance is behind half of the breakdowns it is called to, and so far it has trained 100,000 women in the basics of oil, water and tyres in workshops over the past five years. "The image of the woman who never looks under the bonnet is long gone," says Shelley Maxwell of the RAC.

Well, not that long gone. That same RAC does not employ one female mechanic in its 1,400 patrols. Halford's is also curiously reticent about finding out how many women it employs as mechanics at its 400 stores. "I don't think we have any," a spokeswoman admits, adding: "We think of our customer base in terms of families and family users."

In this they are lagging behind. Ford Women's Marketing panel includes female employees from 10 countries, ranging from the assembly line workers to engineers to designers. They are called in to test everything from ad campaigns to tailgate handles. The company runs a course in how to sell to women and even one in how service receptionists should deal with female customers. "There's an awful lot of women who do know what's going on with cars these days," says co-chair Carol Giles.

And yet an AA investigation found that garages charge the lone female customer up to two-thirds more than men for routine maintenance. To counter this the AA has set up an Approved Garage Scheme. But the Women's Driving Initiative - a motoring club based in Northumberland - has gone one further. Working with the Retail Motor Industry Federation, it is embarking on a campaign to get a "women's charter" taken up by garages this summer.

"We have to be careful not to come off as women liberationists," says founder Judy Fawdington who owns a franchised garage in Hexham. "Because that's not what we're about at all. What we want to do is bridge the gap because there is still a problem in some garages." The Women's Charter is a six-point plan that may look simple but will test many a garage. Included is a commitment not to be patronising or condescending.

Pity the garage that patronises Anita Vidler (and she says a few have tried). She is one of 20 female mechanics employed by the AA. "I wanted to be a lorry driver - my granddad was a mechanic and my dad was a mechanic - and the only way I could become a lorry driver was to join the army. Part of the HGV training was mechanics and that's how I got started really."

Vidler, who has worked on patrol for three years, has got used to a surprised reaction when she steps out of the AA van but, she says, most motorists are so pleased to see help on hand that they aren't too fussy about who serves them.

But why, as the glass ceiling starts to crack in a post-feminist age, are women still so slow to make a living (and a good one) fixing cars? "My personal point of view is that women make good vehicle mechanics. Why there aren't more appears to be entirely attitudinal," says Mike Almond, training director for the Retail Motor Industry Federation. "We've got 5,500 mechanics under training and 200 are women. The numbers are creeping up, though. The number of our female trainees in heavy vehicle mechanics has doubled - from one to two"

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