Mark J. Price

Women drivers were incompetent. They were not emotionally fit to sit behind the wheel of a car. Crashes would decrease if only they wouldn’t drive.

An Akron firestorm ignited in 1946 when a local safety official made those public statements about the inability of “our fairer sex” to drive. The sexist comments were the talk of the town 70 years ago, and led to a challenge pitting men against women.

Gerald A. Barker, executive secretary of the Summit County Safety Council, made the remarks Aug. 26 in a Beacon Journal article about car crashes in which he blamed female drivers for a rising number of wrecks.

“I’ve been almost hit by them many times when crossing streets,” he said. “I’ve been in cars that were crowded off the highway by them. After careful deliberation, I’ve decided they are not fit to sit behind the wheel of a car. … Take them from the highways, and you will see a big decrease in Akron’s accident record.”

Barker, who had been on the job for less than a year after serving as a safety director at Goodyear Aircraft Corp. during World War II, said national statistics backed him up. The problem was that women were too emotional, he said.

“Women just don’t think in a clutch. They are of a nervous temperament and become excited too easily,” he said. “Actually what happens is they think of their appearance when they should be thinking about the proper way to handle a car. I suppose we’ve been too courteous and kind to our fairer sex. If they are going to drive cars, then it’s time they learned how.”

As one might imagine, Barker’s remarks didn’t sit well with many in the community, particularly women. Many expressed outrage at his comments.

“I think he had better take another look at traffic statistics before making any more remarks about us,” responded Helen Emmitt, president of the Ohio Parent-Teacher Association. “Women are perfectly capable of handling any vehicle. Didn’t they drive cabs and buses and sometimes trucks during the war?”

Margaret Mettler, president of the Akron and Summit County Federation of Women’s Clubs, said women could teach a thing or two to men.

“Men drive foolishly,” she said. “I wish I were a traffic officer for just one day. I’d show them a thing or two about the law.

“We pay attention to all the rules and regulations. We don’t speed. But those men! Oh, dear!”

Wife shares opinion

After the article appeared, Barker’s home phone rang off the hook.

“I must have had a thousand telephone calls,” Barker sighed. “One woman wouldn’t talk to me. Wanted my wife. She said she wanted to see what the woman was like who could live with me.”

Asked to comment on her husband, Ruth Barker replied: “He’s not such a hot driver, himself. Sometimes on trips, I feel like using a crank handle on him because he’s so confident he’s the best driver in the world. He misses that by a big, big margin.”

Barker said he was sticking to his guns until women proved him wrong. That’s when the light bulb went off.

Inspired by the controversy, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and the Akron and Summit County Federation of Women’s Clubs sponsored the Battle of the Sexes, a 10-day challenge to determine if men or women were safer drivers. They enlisted Akron Police Capt. E.L. Engelhart, leader of the traffic bureau, to serve as referee of the contest.

In the challenge, any traffic violation including jaywalking would result in a demerit. Points would be based on traffic reports, telephone complaints and special tests.

A system for scoring was established: speeding (10 points), driving left of center (9), car out of control (9), boulevard stop (8), driving while intoxicated (8), changing lanes (7), pedestrian not in crosswalk (7), pulling from curb without warning (6), illegal left turn (6), backing into car or person (6), car crashing red light (6), not yielding to car on the right (5), cutting in while passing (5), right turn from wrong lane (5), all other violations (1).

Points were tripled for a crash without injury and quintupled for an accident with injury. In the event of a death, the penalty was 10 times the demerit. Scores were counted on an 8-1 ratio because there were eight times as many men drivers as women.

“I favor the women to win, not because I believe they are better drivers, but they’ll be smart and won’t drive during the contest,” Traffic Prosecutor Robert Hartnett joked.

Racking up demerits

The contest began after midnight on Sept. 3. In addition to police reports and citations, citizens were invited to call a hot­line if they saw violations.

Capt. Engelhart drove around in an observation car with one member of each sex. “It’s a doggone sight harder to find a safe driver than it is to find a traffic violator,” he said.

Male drivers racked up 310 demerits on the first day of the contest, compared to only 120 for women. Men were docked 97 points for crashes while women didn’t have any.

Women led for three days until a special-tests phase began. Simulators were set up in a storeroom at 143 S. Main St. to gauge braking reactions, depth perception and visual acuity. Men jammed the room to test the gadgets while few women showed up. Consequently, male drivers zoomed ahead with a four-day total of 1,694 demerits for women and 1,249 for men.

The Battle of the Sexes went back and forth. Just when victory seemed secure, the men blew it on the last day by losing 476 points to car crashes and 307 points to phone complaints. Final score: Women 2,530 demerits, Men 3,236 demerits. Sorry, fellows, the women won.

“The Battle of the Sexes has convinced me of one thing,” Capt. Engelhart said afterward. “Each and every one of us would do well to watch our driving more carefully. The women have won, and we have reduced accidents by more than 10 percent.

“But let’s take a look at the record. During the past 10 days, there were 145 accidents — two of them fatal — and 275 court citations issued. Is that good driving?’

Secretary Barker, who would leave his post in 1948 for a job in Wooster, had to eat humble pie.

“I realize now that my national statistics do not apply to Akron’s women drivers,” Barker announced. “I’m glad we have a situation in Akron that is different from other sections of the country.

“I am also very pleased to hear that our accident record improved during the contest. That proves to me we can lick this traffic problem if everyone will apply himself.”

Or herself, Mr. Barker. Or herself.

Copy editor Mark J. Price can be reached at 330-996-3850 or mjprice@thebeaconjournal.com.