Research has revealed that middle-aged mothers are "a danger" behind the wheel. Angela Epstein asks why
The cyclist seemed to appear out of nowhere. Well, they do sometimes, don't they?
Undercutting at junctions or flying through an amber-to-red light with entitlement and impunity. However, not only is this a broad generalisation, on this occasion it simply wasn't true.
The near miss – and I'm talking the nearest of misses – was entirely my fault. I simply hadn't been concentrating. Sure, my hands were on the wheel and my eyes on the road.
However, my mind was soaring and wheeling around like a kite in freefall. It had been a typical day of clock-watching and tail-chasing.
But as a working mother-of-four, whenever I get in the car, it seems the competing pressures in my over-busy life coalesce to potentially devastating effect.
There are the deadlines at work, the need to cram in a supermarket trolley dash before the school pick-up, and a fraught hands-free call from at least one member of my family adding something to my to-do list. That's why I didn't see the cyclist. Put frankly, I was so busy thinking, I simply wasn't looking.
Little wonder that in the past few years I've netted six points and been handed two speed-awareness courses. I'm far from alone.
I make up part of a new demographic that has emerged to challenge the boy racers and elderly motorists habitually charged with being a danger on the roads: the stressed-out, middle-aged mum.
A typical example is the woman who got in contact with me recently after she shunted into the back of another car at high speed on a busy road. She explained that she was having difficulties with her marriage and had so much on her mind. She just wasn't concentrating.
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A woman whose alpha-female and always-frantic existence morphs driving from a form of functioning transport into something potentially lethal.
Last month Laura Brayshaw was found guilty of causing death by careless driving after mowing down a cyclist in Dorset.
During the trial, the court heard how the mother-of-three had lost control of her car, turning around for a "split second" to tell off her young daughters who were throwing popcorn in the back seat. Many women reading this may shudder in recognition.
As one fellow middle-aged, time-poor mummy-motorist, Julia, told me: "I reversed into a tree in November while trying to divert a call and bark at the kids to put their seat belts on.
"Then I scraped a car while worrying about my mother-in-law's health and, again, barking at a child to put seat belt on. I even hit a large rock while stressing about being late for a meeting and dealing with the school run. I just can't seem to focus when I drive."
Of course, the lazy, get-out-of-jail card would be to summon the laws of chauvinism, which routinely poke fun at female drivers.
Yet the fact is, motor insurance company Diamond recently found that nearly half a million road accidents a year are caused by women drivers applying makeup behind the wheel.
We are, along with everything else in life, often the family's designated taxi driver: about 10 per cent of crashes involving women in 2015 happened on school runs, compared with just 1.1 per cent for men.
Solicitor Matthew Miller of motoringoffencelawyers.com says that in the past year alone he has experienced a 50 per cent rise in inquiries from women in their 40s and over who have been charged with driving without due care and attention.
"A typical example is the woman who got in contact with me recently after she shunted into the back of another car at high speed on a busy road. She'd never been in trouble with the police before and was quite distraught. She explained that she was having difficulties with her marriage and had so much on her mind. She just wasn't concentrating."
Scientists have already concluded that women drivers are more likely to be involved in an accident. After looking at 6.5 million car crashes, researchers from the University of Michigan found a higher-than-expected proportion of accidents between two female drivers. They also discovered that women had a tougher time negotiating crossroads, T-junctions and slip roads.
Although the RAC "has not studied the problem", a spokesman admitted: "It may be understandable that some women are under greater pressures than others, juggling a host of tasks and responsibilities. This appears to be reinforced by studies suggesting there is an emerging demographic of middle-aged women who are, perhaps for the first time, experiencing prosecutions and penalties for driving offences – which are attributable to distractions at the wheel."
The question is why? Renowned motoring lawyer Nick Freeman – nicknamed Mr Loophole by the press for his ability to win cases on legal technicalities – is often associated with celebrity clients. Yet he says he is also inundated with inquiries from women in their 40s and 50s who have been charged with a range of driving offences.
"Often they tell me that they are just trying to do too much – work, run the home, look after children, and this impacts on their mental health and the amount they drink, causing their general lack of concentration on the road.
"Many are also suffering with depression. Maybe their marriage is weighed down under the strain of it all. Alternatively, they feel under pressure to perform well in every sphere of their lives – be the perfect wife, perfect mother, and perfect executive. There is no intention to break the law – many have never been in trouble before. However, that level of pressure can have catastrophic consequences when they get behind the wheel."
Anxiety specialist Dr Sandi Mann, director of the Mind Training Clinic in Manchester, explains: "These women are juggling so many aspects of their lives. So when they do something which is largely automatic it is an opportunity for the mind to wander into problem-solving.
"It's not a problem if you're, say, out walking but potentially lethal behind the wheel of a car."
For some women, battling with early symptoms of menopause could also be contributing to the problem. "I see a lot of women at this life stage who are anxious and nervous about driving," says Dr Louise Newson, who runs a private menopause clinic at the Parkway Hospital in Solihull.
"We do know that oestrogen and testosterone receptors are important for brain function so a reduction of hormones during the perimenopause and menopause will alter brain function.
"It can affect concentration and change visual and spatial awareness, which is why women approaching and going through menopause could suffer anxiety about driving."
Alcohol is another major factor. Research by Insurance Revolution found that of all driving convictions handed to women, more than a third are for drink-driving offences committed by the 45-to-60-year age group. Drink-driving men are more likely to be younger, Insurance Revolution claimed, with a third of those convicted aged between 25 and 34.
The majority of driving convictions relating to middle-aged men relate to speeding, says Freeman. "At that age men tend to be experienced motorists so are more comfortable driving at excess speed and breaking the law."
Meanwhile, 64 per cent of all female convictions for serious motoring offences, which include driving while uninsured and causing death by dangerous driving, were for driving under the influence. Freeman warns: "Many women, like men, drink because it is their only way to cope.
"It may sound surprising but there are many female clients who are professionals and to look at them, you'd never believe they were alcoholics. They give the impression they have their life in order. But sadly it is masking what's really happening. They seem to be in a controlled state of despair."
No surprise that given this turmoil, the number and range of offences – and punishments – he adds, are huge, from speeding to causing death by dangerous driving, which can carry a prison sentence of up to 14 years.
It is not surprising either that I still feel breathless when I think about what could have happened when I didn't see that cyclist that typical, busy, overburdened day.
But what's the answer? Listening to relaxing music in the car to drown out those nagging thoughts? Refusing to take calls even though the phone is on hands-free?
Or, long before we get into the car, looking at ways to deflect the stresses of our lives – perhaps by taking up yoga or getting our partners to help share the burden.
Sadly there is no one solution. However, in keeping my eyes focused on the road, I'm hoping at least to make a start.
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• The Word
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• CASPER Suicide Prevention
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.