Lifestyle editor Leslie Milk is the author of It's Her Wedding but I'll Cry If I Want To: A Survival Guide for the Mother of the Bride, just out from Rodale. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My husband's driving is so bad that I was tempted to drive myself to the hospital when I was in labor," says trade-association executive Camille Fleenor.
On the other hand, Fleenor admits that her husband likes to tell the story of how they were chased by a police officer–going in reverse–up a DC street "after I flipped him off for disobeying a stop sign."
Fleenor's tale is typical. As couples travel the road of life, chances are that one partner's driving drives the other crazy. Men and women may be in harmony on love, war, and money, but when they hit the road, all bets are off.
It isn't that men or women are better or safer drivers–although both might claim to be. It's that opposites seem to attract. Speeders are married to slow-and-steadies. Next to almost every aggressive horn-blower is a mortified spouse.
In an unscientific survey, we asked Washingtonians about driving with their spouses. From the hundreds of responses we received to our online questionnaire, we found that road rage here sometimes is directed inside the car.
"I'm a great driver, never had an accident in 40 years," says DC driver Andrea Rouda. "My husband is the world's worst–crashes into something monthly. . . . My insurance company used to send me love notes. Then I married him, and they kicked us out."
"Driving with my husband has caused me to either get out of the car at times or force him to jump out of the driver's seat at red lights," says DC lawyer Victoria Szybillo.
One man claims that riding with his future bride gives him carsickness and whiplash: "Whereas I prefer to ease the car to a stop, she insists on slamming on the brakes–periodically and randomly, I might add."
Another male had a similar story: "After yelling at Stephanie to pull over because I was sick to my stomach from her driving, I realized that she likes to drive to the beat of the music. The problem is that she likes to tap her foot–and her foot is on the gas pedal."
WHO'S IN THE DRIVER'S SEAT?
When the respondents to our survey travel with their spouses, men are behind the wheel more than 70 percent of the time.
"My wife and I argue regularly when I am driving," says architect Greg Shron. "I always drive when we're together. I constantly accuse other drivers of being ignorant and inconsiderate, while she incessantly criticizes me for being too aggressive. It works for us."
Several wives said that they are the relief drivers on long trips, but their husbands do most of the driving.
"I'm the pinch-hitter driver," one wife explains. "If he starts yawning and wants to take a nap, I drive for an hour or so. When he wakes, I might be permitted to continue."
Many people believe that men do so much of the driving because women don't share men's love affair with cars. "A dream car for a woman is a pair of diamond earrings," quipped writer Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times. "High-ticket sports cars seem to be the expected rite of passage for male executives when they reach a long-sought career pinnacle (or a long-dreaded midlife crisis)."
A hot car can be a mixed blessing for a woman. Says a female media executive who drives a 1965 Mustang convertible: "You will only end up wishing men would look at you with the same admiration and lust in their eyes."
In The Washingtonian's survey, the most popular car for women was the unglamorous Honda. Toyota was a close second, Volvo third.
Most Washington men aren't driving wild rides either: Their top vote-getters were Toyotas, Jeeps, and Acuras.
WHO'S A BETTER DRIVER?
Just because wives choose to be passengers doesn't mean they think their husbands are better drivers. Forty percent of the women said they are better drivers than their husbands, while 41 percent claimed that both partners had equal driving skills. Fewer than one in five thinks their husbands are better drivers.
"We used to have spats about driving–now I've whipped him into submission," says Camille Fleenor. "He heads for the passenger's seat when we travel together."
Few husbands share this view. Nearly 70 percent claimed to be better drivers than their wives. Just over 20 percent said their wives had equal driving skills. Only one in ten thought their wives were better drivers.
The sexes also disagreed on whether men or women in general are better drivers. Only 15 percent of the wives thought men are better drivers. More than 60 percent said the sexes had similar driving abilities. The other 25 percent said women were better drivers.
Their husbands didn't agree. Sixty percent said they were the better drivers. Another 30 percent thought men and women had about the same driving skills. Only 7 percent of men said that women are the better drivers.
"While I don't think men are necessarily better drivers," says one man, "I do think that they are more comfortable driving."
"Better drivers, indeed!" scoffs a woman who tells of traveling through Europe with her ex-husband. They landed at Heathrow Airport outside London and rented a car for a trip to the Cotswolds. "I watched as he swung this tiny car out onto the road, almost directly into the path of an oncoming truck. I had a hard time restraining myself from cursing and hurling myself across the car to grab the steering wheel. In Paris, we took Metro. I couldn't bear the thought of being cursed at in French."
"Woman driver" is still a term of derision, although more men than women die in vehicle crashes. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, "men typically drive more miles than women and engage in more risky driving practices, including not using a safety belt, driving while impaired by alcohol, and speeding."
When men and women compete as Lotus test drivers during an adventure-travel package to Great Britain, women usually win, says David Bray, who directed the company that organized the activities. "Men feel they are better drivers and try to outrace the women," Bray told Marketing Week magazine. "But the faster you go 'round a muddy track, the more you skid. Women tend to drive more calmly."
Former Lotus track manager Jonathan Stretton agrees. "We find that women listen more to the instructors and concentrate harder. Men usually just want to get in the cars and go as fast as possible."
Some of the worst stereotypers of women drivers are women themselves. A woman in her thirties wrote, "The worst drivers ever are middle-aged rich women driving their huge Mercedes or Lexuses on their way to a hair appointment."
UNSAFE AT TOP SPEED
More than half of the men responding to the survey admitted that they are more likely to speed than their wives.
"The joy of my anniversary last year," gloats one wife, "was being in the car when my husband was pulled over for speeding."
"Unfortunately, my husband thinks he's a better driver than he actually is," says another wife. "I admit that I like to drive fast, but I am never reckless and will slow down when conditions warrant–in traffic, rain, or snow."
Says one husband: "My two or three speeding tickets pale in comparison to my wife's driving record." The wife was required to attend driving school or face license suspension after she got multiple speeding tickets, dented the rear bumper by backing into a steel pole, lost the front bumper in a collision, and ripped the side molding off in a collision with a parked trailer. "And still she criticizes my driving," he says.
Ilene Rosenzweig, coauthor of Swell: A Girl's Guide to the Good Life, points out that women give men mixed signals when it comes to driving. Before marriage, "women judge men by the way they drive," she says. "If you aren't at least ten miles per hour over the speed limit, we think you're a wimp with no ambition. Heavy foot on the brake? Too neurotic and can't dance. We also analyze your sexual potential at mealtime. Drive fast. Eat slow."
In other words, the driving that attracts women before marriage infuriates them afterward.
MEET THE ROAD WARRIORS
Husbands and wives agree that men are the more aggressive drivers. Put a man into a car and Walter Mitty turns into Evel Knievel, some wives report.
"My husband is really a mild-mannered person," says Beverly Stern. "I think I have seen him really angry less than ten times in almost 40 years. But something strange happens to him when he gets behind the wheel. I don't know if it's testosterone overflow or what. He feels so powerful, I suppose. As a wife with an MS in counseling, I'm clueless as to this phenomenon."
"Most women see cars and driving as a tool to get things done," says DC resident Judy Daniel. "I believe men see cars and driving as an expression of their egos. They are more easily offended by being cut off or otherwise territorially challenged by other drivers."
Territoriality often inspires tailgating, according to a wife who says her husband always drives close to the car in front of him. "If he stays back, usually someone cuts in front," she says. "That's how he justifies tailgating."
A quarter of the men surveyed said their wives were more aggressive behind the wheel–and 22 percent of the wives agreed.
Ann Cochran, a Glen Echo writer, says she knows how her husband, Chuck, is going to die. "I will aggravate someone on the road, they will pull out a gun and aim for me, I will duck, and Chuck will get shot," she says. Cochran says her upbringing in an Italian-American family in New Jersey shaped her driving style.
Aggressive driving is on the rise because of "widespread acceptance of a competitive norm that values getting ahead of other drivers," says Leon James, a professor at the University of Hawaii who has done research on the psychology of driving. He cautions that children can learn dangerous lessons watching their parents drive:
"Kids observe and react internally to their drivers' cursing or yelling, obscene or violent gestures, trash talk, and other common forms of derision and retaliation."
PICK A LANE, ANY LANE
Lane-hugging and lane-hopping are more sources of marital friction. Men and women agree that women are slightly more likely to stick to the right lane.
"Here are some highlights of our daily commute from Glover Park to downtown DC via Massachusetts Avenue," says John Alejandro about his travels with his girlfriend, Lisa Ferens. "She gets in the same slow lane every day and stays in it even though I point out that cars are passing by in the other lane. She hits the same potholes every day, even though we both know exactly where every pothole is on Mass Avenue. She recently hit a pothole so hard it bent the tire rim and we had to put on the spare." Despite driving difficulties, Ferens and Alejandro are now married.
"My partner drives very slow," says another frustrated passenger. "She won't change lanes on the Beltway even if she's stuck behind someone going 45. In the city, she won't change lanes when a bus is in front of her. She probably thinks I'm too risky, but she's almost too cautious."
Men also complain about their wives' getting into the left lane and staying there. "I think it's disrespectful to stay in the left lane when you're on a highway," said a male respondent. "You pass in the left lane and pull over." After he made that point to his wife several times, she not only pulled over, she pulled off the road. "Are you happy now?" she asked.
Some women complain that their husbands won't get into the right lane to exit until the last moment–if then.
"Women get into the right lane upon seeing the first sign that an exit is approaching, even if it's five miles ahead," says one wife. "I didn't ask my husband to move over or get ready for the exit, and he drove past it when other cars wouldn't let him get over."
We also heard complaints about lane-hoppers from men who prefer the slow and steady route.
"For the past ten years, I have driven my wife, Penny, to work," reports Mark Poetker of Rockville. "We usually enjoy the time together. However, Penny started driving five years ago. She is constantly changing lanes, trying to get in front of the next car. I would rather pick a moving lane and stick with it. I think people are too aggressive. Penny thinks I am too slow."
"My wife tailgates endlessly and weaves," says Ashburn resident Kurt Kightly. "I let her drive my new $30,000 sports car and almost had a coronary. We are still newlyweds. I'm almost 50 and not sure she'll let me see the half-century mark."
According to a report in the journal Nature, computer modeling demonstrates that changing lanes in traffic won't get you where you are going any faster, although the lane changer feels like he or she is making progress. The report's authors claim that drivers judge their progress relative to other drivers rather than by how long the trip takes. Besides, the researchers found, people change lanes for emotional reasons–the "overtake or you'll be overtaken" philosophy.
DREAMING AND DRIVING
Husbands and wives accuse each other of being more distracted drivers. Forty percent of the men said their wives were likely to lose focus; only 29 percent said that they got more distracted behind the wheel. Forty-four percent of women said their husbands were more distracted; 31 percent admitted that their attention might be otherwise engaged.
The worst offenders on the road have their hands full, according to our survey.
"He has a Blackberry in one hand, cell phone in the other," says Jennifer Hing. "He is negotiating through the obstacle course of downtown traffic at rush hour. He swerves around taxis, construction, double-parked cars, and pedestrians. He races through a reddish-yellow light and comes to a stop behind a car waiting to turn left–with no signal on."
A newlywed male has a similar story: "My wife insists on driving with one hand while sipping tea or coffee with the other. We were wed in June and now she often drives my SUV with one hand. Help!"
But hands-on-the-wheel doesn't always mean eyes on the road. "My husband is an architect, and he turns to stare at buildings when he drives," reports a wife who hates riding when he's behind the wheel. "On the highway, he also tends to drive in the left lane and, while he usually keeps up with traffic, he may be distracted by–guess what?–buildings. Then he drives other people crazy as well."
"My wife tends to do things besides paying attention to the road: makeup, cell phone, etc.," says a firefighter and paramedic. "Driving distracted is at least as dangerous as driving while intoxicated."
LOST ON THE BELTWAY
Who's better at reading a map or getting directions? Two-thirds of the men said they were better navigators. Women gave themselves the honors by a slight edge. Their comments suggest that reading a map is not the same as knowing where you're going:
"My spouse has the worst sense of direction," one woman writes. "He's lived in the DC area his entire life, and I still have to tell him how to get around the Beltway."
Asking for directions is still an admission of defeat for many men, it seems. One man allows as how he is making progress: "I'll roll down the window and ask, but I won't stop at a gas station," he says.
EASE ON DOWN THE ROAD
How do you stay married to a spouse whose driving drives you crazy?
Couples' rage at each other rarely ripens into violence, according to the comments we received. Disagreements instead take the form of an ongoing guerrilla war. She says, "Slow down," and he slows to a crawl. He says, "Change lanes," and she does–for a moment or two–then edges into the right lane again. He tailgates; she gasps as if she were having a heart attack. He feigns whiplash when she stops short at a yellow light.
Parking is a common problem. "Here she comes," warns one husband whenever his wife approaches a parking space.
"He thinks I'm a terrible driver just because I have been known to gently rub against the car in front of me and behind me," she says.
A few wives reported that their husbands react badly when they innocently point out a nearby parking space at the mall. "He took it as if I was telling him how to drive, got angry, and intentionally found a spot as far away as possible to park," says one.
"I think about doing some traveling when we retire, but how will I be able to stand the stress of driving with him?" asks Beverly Stern. "I guess I could drive, but I'd rather enjoy the scenery. Is this grounds for divorce?"