Fiona Mountford

Women need to take control and take the wheel

Women need to take control and take the wheel
A female driver in Saudi Arabia (Getty images)
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There is a Saudi Arabian film that I love. It is called Wadjda and is about a young girl who longs to have her own bike, so that she can play outside and ride wherever and with whomsoever she likes. Yet Riyadh’s restrictive patriarchy frowns upon women having agency over their means of transport, even bicycles, ensuring that they are forever at the mercy of capricious and often irascible male drivers. 

I have thought about this film and its message a lot this year, when the many benefits of having our own independent methods of transport, primarily cars, have been amply highlighted. Those of us with four wheels have been best able to shop for essential supplies, catch up safely with loved ones and take advantage of the albeit curtailed amount of freedom on offer to go on day trips and holidays at home. Never before have I been so glad that I gave in to my late father’s gentle nagging – ‘I can’t be giving you lifts for ever, you know’ – and finally buckled down to driving lessons at the grand old age of 22. Henry John, my aged but trusty Vauxhall Corsa, has been my staunchest ally in 2020; it is only thanks to him that I got to enjoy a glorious holiday in North Yorkshire this summer.

As Christmas approaches, the question of transport looms large once more. If lockdowns, newly tightened tiers and restrictions all conspire to allow it, there is the tantalising possibility that we will be permitted to cross the country to meet up with our far-flung families. But how will we get there? 

What I have noticed, with growing concern, is that it is too often women, especially older women, who are left exposed here, because of their inability and/or unwillingness to drive. Up until 2020, the lack of a driving licence was something almost to be proud of for a certain kind of city dweller – a flaunting of impeccable metropolitan eco-credentials. Who needed to guzzle gas when there were trains, buses and Ubers? But in winter 2020, when public transport is discouraged, who is going to want to sit in a stranger’s car or spend hours on a packed December train with inadequate air filtration systems?

Among my 40-something female friends, a handful have simply never learned to drive, due to a shifting combination of lack of money, necessity and, I would contest, the last vestiges of a girls-are-no-good-at-maths-and-machines way of thinking. They have, until Covid-19 struck, negotiated with ease the hundreds of miles of distance that separate them and their extended families. Yet I currently have three London-based friends who have not seen their ageing parents all year and are about to face the great Christmas conundrum of the car-less: to travel and run the risk of infection on long-haul public transport, or to sit out the festivities alone at home? Neither option leaps out as particularly appealing.

Could their parents not drive down to them instead? Here’s the rub: too many women of an older generation either never learned to drive at all – girls, maths and machines problem amplified – or ceded all the long drives and motorways to their husbands or gave up driving too early and left it to their husbands and now these increasingly frail men cannot manage such daunting cross-country journeys all by themselves.

The ability to negotiate a motorway on one’s own may not appear to be one of the great feminist crusades, but it really should be, as therein lies possibility and freedom. I will remain forever grateful that my mother was always a determined driver who set her daughter on the right track by proudly passing her test before my father and continued to potter about in her little car well into her eighties. Widowhood with wheels turned out to be a lot better than widowhood without, yet too many of my Mum’s generation have not equipped themselves with a similar advantage. A study by the AA last year showed that men over 65 are six times more likely to be the default driver in the marriage than women, while one third of female drivers over 70 give up their driver’s license.

I heard a sad story recently of an elderly couple and their car-based woes. She has a licence, but increasingly opted out of driving and has now lost all her confidence. He is no longer well enough to drive, rendering them effective prisoners in their beautiful home, dependent upon the whims of a highly unreliable local cab company. They booked a taxi to take them to their flu jab, but the car never showed up and they missed out. She, a keen and thoughtful shopper for Christmas gifts, will struggle to get anywhere near a shop this festive season. 

Women need to take control and take the wheel, as the brute truth is that it’s they who most often bear the brunt of being left carelessly car-less. I am no petrolhead to give Greta Thunberg nightmares and would never advocate that every woman should own a car. I would, however, suggest that this year has taught us that they – we – should at least have a driving licence and a Zipcar account. Wadjda, I know, would heartily concur.