London - Nobody makes jokes about women drivers any more; it's long been proven that women are actually much safer on roads than men. But the latest studies are finding women’s skills behind the wheel are more influenced by hormones than we could ever have guessed.
Men’s behaviour is guided by steady levels of testosterone, which is responsible for their tendency to drive faster and take more risks, women are affected by hormones that fluctuate over the month. These female hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, not only govern reproduction but also have a signficant on all our behaviour - including driving skills.
Tanith Carey looks at seven ways hormones affect how women drive:
Parking in cycles
If you’ve noticed there are some days when you reverse smoothly into a tight spot, and others when it takes 12 different manoeuvres and still isn’t straight, check the calendar.
According to a study in the journal Behavioural Neuroscience, you are likely to find such tasks easy when your levels of the female sex hormone oestrogen are lowest - which happens during your period.
That allows your brain to be more keenly tuned to the male hormone testosterone (which women also have, but in smaller amounts), which has been linked to an increased ability to judge space and distance.
Meanwhile, the most challenging time of the month to park will be when you’re ovulating, because your soaring levels of oestrogen will be dampening down your testosterone.
But don’t despair - there’s no need to panic when your only options are tight spots and your hormones are not on your side.
Gabrielle Lichterman, hormone expert and author of 28 Days: What Your Cycle Reveals About Your Love Life, Moods And Potential, said: "A study by the University of Toronto shows a woman can have better spatial skills by simply making a habit of playing video games that allow her to practise this skill, such as Tetris."
Chew gum to rev up your reactions
When testosterone starts to fall around day 17 of your cycle, levels of progesterone start to rise to prepare you for your period.
This hormone helps to relax us, and has been found to slow down reaction time significantly. So it’s likely you’ll be slower off the mark and less co-ordinated when the traffic lights turn green.
To avoid the angry blaring of car horns behind you, try chewing gum, advises Lichterman.
"Numerous studies show that gum-chewing enhances alertness," she said, "Another study indicates that using jaw muscles stimulates a certain area of the brain responsible for spotting movement, so you’ll be faster at noticing cars veering into your lane or debris in the road."
Lost your car? Sometimes it's normal
In the middle of your cycle, surging levels of oestrogen will make you feel more sociable and as if you want to go out more. Just make a note of where you leave your car.
Tests on ovulating women at Canada’s University of Western Ontario found that, at this time of the month, women find it harder to perform tasks such as picking out shapes - similar to picking out your car in a full car park.
Researchers believe that higher oestrogen levels affect the left side of the brain, which means that verbal skills are prioritised over spatial skills at this time of the month.
Want to know the secret to passing your driving test?
While men are more likely to be involved in crashes, a woman driver taking the driving licence test for the first time at the age of 20 is 15 percent less likely to pass than a male of the same age.
But you can even the odds by picking your timings carefully.
In the first week after your period, you will get the best combination of rising oestrogen levels, which improve memory and concentration, and testosterone, which gives a go-getting attitude.
Lichterman explained: "On these days, rising oestrogen may make you optimistic, hopeful and bold, helping you face the stressful test with confidence."
Baby brain will lead you astray
It may be wise not to leave home without your satnav when you're pregnant.
In 2016 researchers at Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for Human Development asked two groups of 30 women to navigate a maze after first being shown the way. One group were not pregnant and had never had children, while the other team were all women due to give birth for the first time within a month.
The mothers-to-be found it much harder to find their way; a brain scan showed their putamen, a part of the brain involved in learning, had shrunk considerably in the pregnant women, due to soaring levels of oestrogen.
This may also explain why some pregnant women report suffering a type of forgetfulness known as ‘baby brain’. Psychologist Dr Nina Lisofsky, who led the study, said: "Pregnant women are exposed to exceptionally high oestrogen levels. We found that during pregnancy, it changed a woman’s route-learning performance, which might be due to oestrogen acting on different brain regions."
Mind the bumps if you're expecting
Women are most protective of their bodies during pregnancy - that's logical - but research shows they are at their highest risk of having a car crash in the second trimester of pregnancy.
In one study published in the journal of the Canadian Medical Association, 500 000 mothers were asked about their car accident history before and after they’d given birth, including every crash serious enough that they had to go the casualty department.
Before they fell pregnant those half million ladies were involved in an average of 177 serious crashes a month where they were the driver - about 0.035 percent - but by the time they were four months’ pregnant, it was an average of 252 a month - a 42 percent rise. However, by the last month of pregnancy, this dropped, possibly because women were driving extra carefully as they were more conscious of their big baby bumps.
Researcher Dr Donald Redelmeier said: "A normal pregnancy is associated with fatigue, nausea, insomnia, anxiety and distraction - all of which could contribute to driver error.
"But we're not saying pregnant women shouldn’t drive - and they certainly shouldn’t leave the driving to male partners, who, as mostly young men, have worse crash rates than women, pregnant or not."
Cursing at the wheel? It's the menopause!
It will come as no surprise to hear that men are more aggressive drivers; it's supposedly wired into their DNA - a hangover from their old roles as hunters. Men also have about 20 times more testosterone than women. Thanks to the soothing and nurturing properties of oestrogen, however, women have more empathy with other drivers,
But when women reach menopause their oestrogen levels decrease, allowing testosterone to exert more influence over their behaviour, which can make women more assertive - and also more likely to use some colourful language behind the wheel.
Some women who have spent their lives being the meekest drivers on the road suddenly become more assertive. So, if you are a woman in later life who is refusing to brake to let others out, your hormones may be responsible. They may also be to blame for road rage.