By Kelley Teahen, Vice President, Communications and Marketing, Parachute.
In her award-winning 2019 book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, author Caroline Criado Perez looks at how “a gender gap in data perpetuates bias and disadvantages women.”
It should come as no surprise to people active in road safety planning that Perez has highlighted several examples of this bias from the world of Vision Zero and road safety work.
The best-known example of women’s invisibility when it comes to road safety: researchers built crash-test dummies to mimic the average male body, which is significantly taller and heavier than an average woman and proportioned differently, meaning safety features realized from that automobile testing benefited male bodies, and not women’s.
Perez covers this in her aptly named chapter, “A Sea of Dudes”, where she points out the deadly results on our roads due to data bias that doesn’t take women into account:
“Men are more likely than women to be involved in a car crash, which means they dominate the numbers of those seriously injured in car accidents. But when a woman is involved in a car crash, she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured than a man and 74% more likely to be moderately injured, even when researchers control for factors such as height, weight, seat-belt usage, and crash intensity. She is also 17% more likely to die. And it’s all to do with how the car is designed – and for whom.”
Perez continues for another five pages filled with statistics and evidence and concludes: “In some ways, it’s hard to understand why a proper female crash-test dummy hasn’t been developed and made a legal requirement in car tests years ago, but on the other hand, and given all we know about how women and their bodies are routinely ignored in design and planning, it’s not surprising at all.”
At the same time Perez wrote her book, the car manufacturer Volvo was taking steps to remedy that bias through its E.V.A. (“Equal Vehicles for All”) Initiative launched in 2019: they collected real-world data from collisions since the 1970s and made that research digital library, documenting 43,000 collisions and 72,000 people’s injuries, available to everyone. So now the problem is acknowledged, the car manufacturers are beginning to address this issue but, to put a twist on an old the saying, we haven’t come a long way, baby.
It’s more than the physical shape of women’s bodies that are rendered invisible when it comes to road safety, Perez points out. New voice-recognition software in cars is meant to decrease distractions and make driving safer but “they can have the opposite effect if they don’t work – and often, they don’t work, at least for women.” She cites numerous examples where the voice-activated command systems, or voice-activated phone systems, refuse to work for a woman but will work for a man. An executive at a car navigation system supplier firm quoted by Perez suggests that women just need “lengthy training” to lower the pitch of their voices although he’s puzzled why they don’t want to do so. Rather than make the technology responsive to all users, she concludes, it’s up to women to change to make the technology work.
And it’s not just women’s bodies and voice pitch that make cars and roads less safe for them: it’s how they live their lives. In the chapter, “Can Snow-Clearing Be Sexist”? Perez goes in depth into the story of the town of Karlskoga, Sweden, where in 2011 all policies were ordered to be reviewed through a gendered lens. One official laughed that “at least snow-clearing was something the ‘gender people’ would keep their noses out of.”
It turns out, the snow-clearing policies were highly gendered – and ignored the reality of women’s lives. Women, more than men, walk or take public transport; men are more likely to drive. Men’s travel patterns are more likely to be a twice-daily commute in and out of town whereas women engage in “trip-chaining”, dealing with children and school elderly relatives’ appointments, grocery pickups.
Karlskoga, like most municipalities, cleared major commuter roadways first in snowy conditions. They decided to switch the order of “snow-clearing to prioritise pedestrian and public-transport users.” This turned out to be an injury- and life-saving decision. Sweden had collected data on hospital admissions for injuries since 1985, which is “dominated by pedestrians, who are injured three times more often than motorists in slippery or icy conditions.” Data are still being collected comparing injury rates before and after changing snow-clearing priorities but Perez’s research has uncovered key successes as more Swedish communities adopt new plowing policies. In Stockholm, she says, joint cycle and pedestrian laneways are now being cleared to summer conditions in the winter, and injury incidents have gone down by half.
This is a symptom of transport planning in general, Perez concludes: transport as a profession is highly male dominated, engineers focus mostly on mobility related to employment, and politicians will spend on road building (disproportionately benefitting men) but balk at funding transit or improvements for pedestrians (disproportionately disadvantaging women).
There are exceptions: Perez highlights successes, including in Vienna, where “60% of all journeys are made on foot, in no small part because the city takes gender planning seriously.” It’s been the gender planning office that collects data on pedestrian travel and has led to city-wide improvements for those walking to travel. Other things that benefit women: “hopper fares” on transit, which acknowledge the realities of women’s lives; collecting travel data that reflects the fact trips related to shopping and caregiving are as necessary as going to work; and encouraging mixed-use planning that allows women to access all they need nearby, rather than separating out zones in a city for work and living. This is particularly acute in large cities where people of low income need to travel extensively to reach places of work.
Perez’s book is an excellent reminder of how much we take for granted and that “data” are not neutral sets of numbers: when men are counted as the default and women treated as atypical, our policy choices and resource allocation discriminate against women. As we work toward our vision of a world with zero deaths on our roads, we need to take a step back and ensure the data we’re using to pursue that goal includes women as well as men.