Envy of posh women drivers is all the rage

A female in a flash motor? It's enough to infuriate a boy racer, says Ian Burrell
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There is nothing that stimulates rage in a young male driver quite like the sight of a woman in a flashier car than his own. When Dr Catriona Bevan, a paediatrician, emerged from a pub car park in her pounds 33,000 white Mercedes 300 CE with personalised 12 CB number plates, something rankled with Peter Roberts, 27, in a C-reg Volvo.

Dr Bevan, 36, told Cardiff crown court that Mr Roberts overtook her, before jamming on his brakes in an emergency stop. In the parlance of the boy racer, this manoeuvre is known as "cutting someone up". The cars collided. Although a jury took only 45 minutes to accept Dr Bevan's account of the incident, the police had taken an entirely different view. They had charged her with dangerous driving and accused her of using her Mercedes as a battering ram. Mr Roberts was not charged.

Outside the court, Dr Bevan said Mr Roberts reported her to the police because "I had a nice car and he was jealous". "This is a victory for women everywhere. Most women motorists have been in a situation where they feel threatened by male drivers but are powerless to do anything about it."

Dr Bevan described the police's decision to prosecute her as a "nonsense", but she could not have been as bemused as Bobbie Sweitzer, an American woman who faced prosecution for little more than being a Porsche driver and a mother.

Dr Sweitzer, an anaesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, had parked her vehicle legally outside a shop while she dropped off a roll of film for processing. Her two young daughters were sleeping in the car and so she closed the windows, locked the doors and set the alarm before running into the shop. During the 20 to 30 seconds it took her to return, an onlooker reported her to the police for child neglect.

Officers acted fast. By the time Dr Sweitzer had returned home the police had left two messages for her, requesting an interview. It has cost her more than pounds 9,000 in legal fees to beat the allegations, which were finally dropped after eight months. But the incident could remain on the social services' file on her daughters, aged one and four, until they turn 18.

In both these cases, the women drivers had been accompanied by small children; Dr Bevan was with her four-year-old daughter. While some women motorists may be earning enough to indulge themselves in what have traditionally been rich men's playthings, it is apparently a statement too far for them to demonstrate that they are bringing up children as well.

For some men, the only time a woman should be seen with a nice car is when she is sprawled across the bonnet at a motor show, or on the cover of a car magazine. Or in the front passenger seat of his own wagon. Yet the chauvinist attitudes are based on a genuine belief that women drivers are less competent than men.

Is there any justification for this view? Earlier this month, researchers at Reading University reported on deep-rooted differences in the psychology of the sexes which make women drivers more dangerous when taking right turns at road junctions. The research showed that women took longer to learn how to judge gaps in the traffic and were prepared to take more risks at junctions when the gaps between oncoming vehicles were dangerously small.

Then last week, evidence was presented to the US congress that women drivers were the new scourge of the highway. They were said to let their attention wander while at the wheel and change lanes without signalling, and were becoming increasingly aggressive and reckless. The evidence was so damning that the US insurance industry, which has traditionally been kinder to women drivers than to men, is switching to equal opportunities in insurance policies.

Here, the Scottish Office produced figures showing a sharp rise in the number of accidents involving women motorists. They were interpreted as evidence that the road-rage phenomenon had crossed the gender divide. The traditional "bloody women drivers!" outcry of the chauvinist motorist seemed strangely more appropriate, with women apparently prepared to use violence to settle roadside disputes.

According to Neil Greig of the AA: "Anecdotal evidence shows women see men cutting in at roadworks and gaining an advantage, so they try to follow suit. They are also more likely to suffer from road rage now than a decade ago because women are travelling further and faster, due to commitments and deadlines at work."

There are simpler explanations: the number of women with driving licences has increased from 9.6 million a decade ago to 16.3 million now.

Statistics kept by insurers show that female motorists have a prang, on average, every 52 months. By comparison, men crash every 48 months.

Why, then, are there male drivers and officers in the predominantly male bastion of the police service who continue to think that the woman in the posh car is incompetent, dangerous and a bad mother?

It is nothing more than the same old-fashioned prejudice which means that a black man in an expensive car is more likely to be stopped by police than a white man in an identical vehicle.

The type of person who judges a person's worth by their car keys often cannot accept that a driver of a race or gender which they consider to be inferior to their own could be abiding by the law. But these men are not everywhere; the jury which last week threw out the charges against Dr Bevan was two-thirds male.