Their driving skills make them safer than men on the roads, but now female motorists face huge rises in their insurance premiums under a new gender-equality policy that is set to cause a major political row.
Brussels officials are demanding the introduction of unisex policies, a measure which insurers argue would mean British women would be subsidising boy-racers at an extra cost of up to pounds 300m a year. Experts say the rise in premiums for women would be in the 10 to 15 per cent range, with some fearing it could be as much as 30 per cent. A 20-year-old woman driving a Ford Mondeo could therefore be paying an extra pounds 700 a year.
The reaction from prominent drivers last night was predictably furious. Kate Heath, former British Ladies' Rally Champion, said: "I'm all in favour of fairness, but women are statistically better drivers than men. Making a differentiation between female and male drivers isn't discrimination. It's sense."
Some male drivers were unimpressed by this case. Roche Bentley, founder of the MG owners' club and director of Lancaster Insurance, said that people in Europe should "keep their nose out of it". "What right has Brussels to interfere?" he said. "Women do have more little accidents than men, but when we do it we go end over end and we'll do it in spectacular fashion."
Until now, women drivers have benefited from cheaper insurance deals because, contrary to popular stereotype, they are far less of a hazard behind the wheel than men. This is backed by government figures which show that male drivers commit 88 per cent of all driving offences and are involved in 97 per cent of dangerous driving cases.
In response to the widespread outrage provoked by the EU reforms, a parliamentary inquiry has been set up to investigate the new anti- discrimination law. This Wednesday, it will publish its findings which are expected to lead to increased demands for commissioners to rethink their outlawing of gender bias.
The influential cross-party committee of Lords, which monitors EU social and consumer issues, is expected to tell ministers that the attempt to establish equal access for men and women on issues such as car insurance will have much greater cost implications than anticipated. This comes as more women are getting involved in the macho world of motor racing and rally driving, which includes the model Jodie Kidd among its enthusiasts. She said recently of women drivers: "Some are better than others, granted, but it's a shame cars don't make more of an appearance in fashion magazines."
In an effort to circumvent the outlawing of gender bias, some insurers are already setting up women-only policies so they can still offer them low rates. Last month, Peter Wood, the founder of Direct Line, launched First Alternative Woman aimed solely at women, and Ladybird and Diamond are also offering similar deals.
In June, 17 out of 25 countries including the UK said they had reservations about the sex neutrality drive. So far the European Commission has refused to back down although it needs the agreement of all member states.
The directive will be debated next month at the council of ministers and applies to all goods and services. Although women will lose out on car insurance, they do stand to gain from other aspects of the reforms. For …