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Monday, 7 March 2011

Sheila’s Bigoted Wheels

So. Car insurance companies giving women cheaper deals, just because they are women, has been ruled as sex discrimination by the EU's European Court of Justice. Ohh! How deliciously controversial, eh?

Unlike one of my good friends, who, to my amused bafflement, always gets apoplectic at Sheilas' Wheels ads, I was pretty accepting of it as a fact of life: Women are statistically safer drivers. Men’s premiums are skewed by the abundance of moronic boy-racer tw*ts – and I do not apologise for my cuss word there – I may be generous with my swears elsewhere for comic effect, but here I really mean it. I get properly furious, and not in an amusing way, whenever I see those utter, utter bell-pieces deliberately, actually, properly, genuinely putting people’s lives at risk for the sake of their barely-sentient, testosterone-p*ssing egos. F*** them. Really.

But, anyway, so, women are statistically safer drivers. Sure they might get ripped on for being slow and nervy and having poor spatial awareness when parking (I know this is a stereotype. Bear with me.) Slow and over-cautious drivers are dangerous to some extent, yes, because they infuriate other drivers and make them take risks; but more dangerous are the drivers who’re convinced they’re brilliant – so brilliant that they apparently have powers of pre-cognition about what other road-users are going to do, and can get away with all kinds of death-defying gambles, ‘cause they’re Michael f***ing Schumacher. And these, statistically, are more likely to be men.

So I understand the price difference. I can see how frustrating it would be for a young bloke buying his first car to be whacked on the bonce with such a massive insurance bill, and my sympathies go out... but, y'know, the premiums do come down with age. That’s just the way it is. Blame our sex – the insurance companies just go on the stats.

And that is one of the objections to this ruling – sex discrimination, the nay-sayers say, should refer to unfounded bias and prejudice. But this isn’t unfounded: Insurance companies don’t make decisions on social prejudices and out-dated conventions, they look only at the hard statistics. It is a fact that men cause more accidents than women do – and so are more likely to claim.

Insurance companies calculate their premiums by looking at past claims, and current relevant risk-factors, and use the trends they see in those statistics. The more probable it is that you, in your specific situation, will claim, the higher your premium will be. All very dry and scientific – no room for prejudice there.

Or is there? Because, what the above account fails to note is that any judgement you make about an individual based on generalising from a larger group/category they belong to, is prejudice. Of course it is – statistically a lot more men follow cricket than women, a lot more English people drink tea than, say, American people, and a lot more black people listen to reggae than white people. But that doesn’t mean you can just presume that any English black man you meet will drink tea, love reggae and be a massive cricket fan.

But this is exactly what insurance does – it judges you on looking at general trends in masses of people. Whether it’s looking down its nose at where you live, trying not to look alarmed at you smoking at your age, or getting all cautious over you being male, it works on the probability of you or your situation leading to certain costly consequences. It is the disparity between the individual and crowd that creates any unfair prejudice, rather than groundless, ignorant stereotyping, but it’s still prejudice.

In fairness what else do insurance companies have to go on? How else could it work? Are they expected to take our word for it (“Oh, yes, I’m ever so safety conscious, Dan.”)? They can’t possibly follow everyone around individually, and get to know them properly, before quoting them. (“Dan” works for the insurance company. I hope that was clear.)

The big problem for insurance is that it works this way for everything, leaving the way open to similar rulings banning age discrimination for life-insurance policies and such like – and pretty soon we are in a situation where you cannot discriminate (in the broad sense) between people or their situations in any way at all, whatever the statistics tell you – and basically, everyone is charged the same for insurance whatever their situation.

As a rugged individualist (and, it has to be said, a bit of a weirdo in some respects) I think it’s a very good rule of thumb to not presume stuff about the people you come into contact with based on their apparent “type” or situation – but even I have to admit that much of the time you simply have to, in order to make decisions and make sense of the world around you. In terms of general trends there are real differences between men and women, the young and the old, the wealthy and the not so, and people of different cultural backgrounds. Stereotypes can be depressingly accurate, and people depressingly predictable. In business this is an essential factor to grasp when planning any interaction with your customer base. The insurance industry would cease to exist as we know it if it couldn’t make decisions based on such statistics.

How I feel about that, I don’t know. Part of me has always thought the whole industry is a scam anyway – ever since I tried to claim after my first accident, thinking, naively, "this is what I pay for, so I won’t have to somehow find £300 for repairs now..." only to realise my excess, which I had to pay, was £300. They would pay nothing, or scrap my car and give me £600 if I fancied that, and then ask for more money because I’d lost my no-claims bonus. Cheers. That was well worthwhile, then. (I didn't claim.)

However, on my second accident, where I wrote off my car (a different car) in a ditch (male drivers, eh?) I was looking at a much greater sum than £300 to find. To my surprise they paid out generously and I was very, very relieved and grateful. None of which has anything to do with sex discrimination, but, well... I clearly don’t know what my opinion is on that either. You decide – I'm afraid I can only say I have sympathies with both sides of the argument. I'm not convinced such a terrible miscarriage of human rights has been done either way. Life ain't fair, kids - or at least it can't always be fair to everyone all the time. Either way, that's just how it's gone down this time - I'm not going to discriminate.


  1. You're wrong. Life is now fair. The European Court of Justice has spoken.

    My view on the panolpy of European institutions is pretty robust, but then I recently discovered I'm further to the right than Richard Littlejohn. (He thinks it's reasonable that people can get sex change operations on the NHS. I'm not a big fan of unnecessary surgery because of mental illness, and I'm certainly not a fan of paying for it.)

    But this case has made me think of what else they can pre-judge you on. Disabilities, fair enough. If you're blind, you should be paying higher premiums.

    But let's say they've amassed evidence that black people tend to drive like crack-addled ferrets for instance.... I'm not saying they are, of course! Some of my best drivers are black people.

    But the Chinese? Swarthy Middle Eastern types? The Ainu people of Hokkaido? Anglo Saxons? Can racial profiling by insurance companies be backed up if it's not being done for racist reasons, but simply looking at the figures?

  2. Car insurance is ridiculous for me either way. It doesn't make much odds whether there is a slight reduction in male premiums (which there won't be anyway, because those insurance bastards won't pass on savings, they'll just charge women more).

    I'm more pissed off about Transport For London. Just got slapped with £120 fine for stopping in a yellow box. What are you supposed to do?! It's on green, two lanes converge into one and without stopping momentarily, you crash into the car in front of you, which has also stopped. Boris Jonhnson has got a tidy racket in piss-take traffic contravention fines and no mistake. Bloody yellow boxes - have to be the second worst road innovation invention ever, after speed humps.

  3. Wasn't the first worst road innovation the motor car? Sure, there was a lot of shit to shovel when it was all horse-drawn carriages (and I'm not sure about the carbon footprint/methane issues involved) but as The Rubber Bandits said 'fuck your Honda Civic, I've a horse outside'.

  4. Are you turning into an Amish, Ali?

  5. I'm turning into a mishmash.