Who drives on a date — whether it’s the first, fourth or the 400th?
The guy, duh. Even in these progressive times, this is undoubtedly chapter and verse. Some anecdotal evidence: Not one of MEL’s female staffers drives when she’s in the car with a gentleman suitor, whether he’s a Tinder match, boyfriend, fiancé or husband.
Of course, that’s hardly scientific. So here’s some pretty convincing empirical evidence: A 2009 study reported that in nine out of 10 households that identify themselves as “feminist,” the man did most of the driving when both partners were in the car. A year later, the Institute of Advanced Motorists found that when partners drive together, men are four times more likely to take the wheel. Not to mention that female drivers are more likely to feel uncomfortable driving when their partner is in the passenger seat.
And think about any movie, commercial or TV show. If a man and woman are in the car, chances are he’s behind the wheel. In fact, the only car commercial to have ever broken from this trope is the 2015 Toyota Camry “Drums” commercial. In it, a husband and wife are walking to their Camry when they hear their neighbor’s teenage garage band. Perturbed, the woman sits down at the drums and does a John Bonham impression that leaves the kids gobsmacked. Then she climbs into the driver’s seat with her husband riding shotgun. The tagline? “The bold new Camry, as unexpected as the people who drive it. One bold choice leads to another.”
To see how this plays out in the real world, we sought out a married couple of 15 years, car salesman, celebrity matchmaker, sociologist, serial dater and family therapist. Here’s what they told us…
Pepper Schwartz, sociologist and sexologist professor at the University of Washington: There’s a term in sociology known as “cultural lag,” in which things continue beyond their functionality or beyond their meaning. Because they were done a certain way, they continue to be done that way. It’s similar to why men mow the lawn more than women. It’s not a skill so much as it is an allocation from tradition.
Furthermore, women are worried — and sometimes with good reason — about inflicting a lack of masculinity on their partners’ dignity. For older couples, the woman, even though she’s more apt to drive because her husband can’t see as well, lets the man drive as an act of love. Essentially, the woman is willing to be hurt in an accident rather than impede on her husband’s role as the protector.
Peter, husband of Katie: When you start dating someone, it’s part of the gentleman’s tradition to open the door for the lady to get in the passenger’s seat. I couldn’t imagine doing that for her to get in the driver’s seat. After that, it becomes habit and second nature. That said, if I’m too tired or have had too much drink, she’ll drive.
Katie, wife of Peter: I feel like Pete is looking at every move that I make when I’m driving him around. I don’t think I can live up to his standard of driving. So it can get uncomfortable. Otherwise, it’s laziness more than anything else. Men like to drive because it makes them feel like a man. I don’t care as much about the driving experience. I just want to go from point A to point B. I don’t care so much how I get there.
Chris Morales, Fiat salesman: I focus on different features of the car based on the sex of the person. For women, I focus on the comfort and technology features like Bluetooth and the back-up camera and sensors. With men, I focus on the drive of a vehicle, the feel of the steering wheel and how it would feel to pull up to a valet or a friend’s house. So in that regard, I suppose I subconsciously consider that a man is likely the one driving on a date.
Alessandra Conti, celebrity matchmaker: One woman told me that on her second or third date, she met up with a guy at some show and since he Ubered to the venue, she drove him after the show ended. She was explaining to me about how the dynamic was a little awkward since he was directing her, telling her to stop or slow down. The rest of the night followed suit. Dating is very sensitive in that there can be a shift that happens in the middle of a date and everything can change. So when in doubt, drive, boys.
Alejandro, serial dater: I’ve been with a lot of women who drive. You can see their intentions on whether they offer to drive. It tells me she’s trying to give something to the relationship — to really want to make it work. It shows she’s more interested in me rather than the free ride, free drinks, free meal. It also shows she’s super independent.
It’s a given that I’m going to drive on a second or third date. I just ask where should I pick her up. My parents are Spanish, so I was raised to be chivalrous, and driving is part of that chivalry.
When she is driving, I feel a little scared because I’m giving up control. With my ex, who was my longest relationship, she always drove. I would try really hard not to correct her, but sometimes I couldn’t help myself.
Allen Wagner, marriage and family therapist: In a romantic setting, we fall back into traditional roles. I’ve seen type-A women that allow the men they’re dating to control the trajectory of their relationship. They become more passive in romantic situations. It plays into stereotypes. They want to feel safe and protected.
For boys and men, we’ve been socialized to think of cars as a big deal. Whether it’s growing up with remote-control cars, monster-trucks show or working on cars with dad, vehicles have been labeled by society as a masculine thing, even though nowadays, it’s obvious that women are just as into sports cars and monster-truck shows as men.
If things are going to change, we need more stories where the power dynamic in the relationship is different. I see a lot of male patients who are primary caregivers, but I don’t see as much storytelling around that scenario to normalize it. Once movies, TV shows and commercials catch up, I think we’ll start to see more women driving in a romantic setting.