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Girl Meets Boy, at 60 Miles an Hour

In Accident Rates, Women Are Gaining Fast on Men

By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 9, 2004; Page C01

Sitting in the kitchen, Shana Shrader and her college-age girl posse have something to confess.

They drive a lot -- they live a long way from things, in Clarksville. They sometimes drive fast. And sometimes they crash their cars -- or, in Shrader's case, her dad's cars.

Jackie Tayman, left, and Shana Shrader of Clarksville both have had car accidents, though none serious. Nationally female teenagers are crashing cars -- and dying in cars -- at significantly higher rates than a decade ago. (Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

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"She spun out in my Supra, which she took without my permission," says Dad, aka Robert Shrader, on his way to work, where he's general manager of Carmax and Laurel Toyota.

"You gave me permission," Shana shoots back. "I was learning the stick shift."

She turns to explain. "I had trouble putting it into first gear after stopping at a stop sign. I raced the engine, it took off and hydroplaned, running the hood under a big truck."

Months earlier, in Dad's Land Rover, she had bumped into a Camaro. Two years before, 15 and unlicensed, she had climbed into his Toyota 4Runner -- "Without my permission," Dad says, and backed into the driveway too fast. "I ran into the side of the house so hard, a whole construction crew had to come out to shore up the house."

The young women smoke cigarettes and keep talking. Jackie Tayman says she hit three cars in three separate incidents. Marissa Montanez says she was riding in a car driven by another girl when it flipped over several times.

None of the three has been seriously injured, but their experiences reflect a sobering development in road safety: Young women are crashing cars -- and dying in cars -- at significantly higher rates than a decade ago.

They're driving, in other words, like guys.

Federal highway officials are so alarmed by this that they put it near the top of a recent press release, citing among 15- to- 20-year-olds a 42 percent increase in young female driver fatalities from 1992 to 2002 (the rate for young males rose 15 percent). State Farm Insurance, a leading auto insurer, has monitored the trend and adjusted its rates for girls accordingly: from 61 percent less than boys' rates in 1985, to 40 percent less today.

No one doubts that girls are driving more than they used to. Full social calendars, inadequate public transportation in the suburbs, owning their own cars, a keen sense of independence all contribute to more young female drivers behind the wheel traveling more miles.

Shrader and her pals are a good example. They think nothing of piling into a car and driving from their upscale Howard County homes to Cape Cod, New York City or South Florida.

"My car's been everywhere," Shrader says proudly in the kitchen. In three years she has put 52,000 miles on her 1998 Toyota Corolla -- a model Dad chose because it had side airbags. Her friends admit to even more miles; in two years, Tayman's Honda Civic has chalked up 40,000, Montanez's Civic 72,000.

Some of that driving is done alone; the day of relying on boyfriends or brothers is ancient history. Montanez drove home regularly this past school year from the University of South Carolina to see her boyfriend. Tayman recently let a boy pick her up for dinner, then insisted on going back home afterward to get her car so they could drive separately to a party.

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