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Who’s Gonna Drive You Home Tonight? Looking Back at Viteles’ Work With Yellow Cab

Kevin T. Mahoney and John E. Buckner V
Louisiana Tech University

Ever notice how men assume every bad driver must be a woman, but women assume it is always a man? And how resilient this assumption is, despite evidence to the contrary? It seems that the opposite sex will do anything to cause an accident: drive slow in the fast line, cut people off, text while driving, or even primp in the rearview mirror 10 seconds after a red light turns green. But do differences between the sexes really contribute to their driving ability? And should we consider this in an employment context? These questions were pondered early in the history of I-O psychology, in the late 1920s, and again before World War II by pioneering industrial psychologist Morris Viteles.

Perhaps Morris Viteles is best known as the author of Industrial Psychology (1932), a popular early textbook, once referred to as “the Bible” (Thompson, 1998). Russian born, Viteles was educated at the University of Pennsylvania where he was a graduate student of Lightner Witmer and later spent his career as a professor and administrator (Viteles, 1967). Viteles was also a very active and well-known consultant, who provided broad advice in selection, training, and management development to clients such as the Philadelphia Electric Company, Bell Telephone Company of Philadelphia, and Yellow Cab Company. Viteles was committed to sustaining a relationship with the university along with his extensive consulting work. In fact, Viteles’ ability to effectively balance research and practice is why he is known as the prototype of the scientist–practitioner (Thompson, 1997).

Though Viteles identified the Philadelphia Electric Company as his “major commitment in industry,” he also consulted with Yellow Cab Company between 1924 and 1965. Viteles’ activities with Yellow Cab included personnel selection, accident prevention, and negotiation. He was prepared for this sort of work because his dissertation with Witmer had investigated competency modeling among streetcar motormen (Viteles, 1967). When writing his autobiography, Viteles remembered fondly his relationship with the president of Yellow Cab, E. S. Higgins. The two apparently enjoyed horseback riding through Philadelphia parks together, and their rides were often when Viteles provided advice. Higgins had described Viteles as “an intellectual irritant” to the company, which Viteles gleefully remarked summed up an essential part of the role of a consulting industrial psychologist (Viteles, 1967). Some of what Viteles “irritated” Higgins about concerned the accident rates of cab drivers and possible sex differences.

In July 1941, the Cleveland-based Cab Research Bureau (CRB) was exploring the option of employing women as taxi cab drivers. Formed just 3 years earlier, the CRB was tasked with collecting data for the industry, finding out rates and operator details. The following year, it would become affiliated with the National Association of Taxicab Owners, an umbrella organization for taxi operators across the nation which boasted John Hertz (i.e., Hertz Rent-a-Car) among its founders (TLPA, 2012). The Cab Research Bureau noted the popularity of women taxi drivers in news articles and magazines, but they were unsure if this constituted a real trend or it was merely a fad. Seeking information on the potential benefits of hiring women, the CRB’s Clewell Sykes wrote a letter querying: “We don’t know whether or not to take this question of women cab drivers seriously. So far we do not know of one large cab operation which is giving a real trial to women drivers… if you run across any real facts (favorable or unfavorable)… let us have the story” (Morris Viteles papers).

Sykes looked to Viteles’ research for insight and found that the idea of hiring women as taxi cab drivers was not new at all. Morris Viteles and Helen Gardner had published a 1929 article in The Personnel Journal detailing a year-long study (March 1927–February 1928) of the accident rates of cab drivers in a large Eastern city, which focused exclusively on sex differences. Although the cab company is not named, E. S. Higgins is thanked as the general manager of the company involved, removing any mystery. The primary goal of this article was to discern whether women taxi cab drivers were more or less accident prone than men. Viteles and Gardner were aware of the stereotypes of driving behavior, even in 1929, and suggested that generally men believed they were safer drivers than women, but women believed they were the safer ones. The authors were also aware that confounding influences may lead to apparent sex differences in accident rates of cab drivers. In fact, Viteles and Gardner prefaced their article by stating, “sex differences are not the chief variables,” noting training, experience, and exposure to hazards may differ between men and women.

This study presented Viteles and Gardner with the same challenges in conducting applied research that industrial psychologists face today: the need to identify proper comparison groups and control for extraneous variables. Viteles and Gardner tried to do this by matching samples of men and women drivers on the type of vehicle operated, the mechanical conditions of the cabs driven, and the weather and traffic conditions in which drivers performed (Viteles & Gardner, 1929). However, their data were limited. They still ended up having to compare women who were generally inexperienced drivers, were held to less rigorous preemployment standards, drove newer cabs, tended to work safer districts, and drove exclusively during the day with men who had more experience, were required to pass a standardized driving examination, drove any cab available, and worked both day and night shifts.

Viteles and Gardner’s data represent a case of the proverbial apples and oranges. There were literally 50 times the number of men (2,000) than women (about 40) studied, and this resulted in comparing about 2.75 million miles driven by men per month with 30,000 miles driven by women. Although they insisted women were given a “thorough training” course, this training was administered separately from men, leaving no way to establish men and women were similarly trained. In addition, sustaining a “standard working force” of 40 women required the company to hire 150 women across the time period studied, which reflects a magnificently high rate of turnover. Viteles and Gardner’s study illustrates the difficulties of drawing conclusions from field research when comparing samples of dramatically different backgrounds, experience, and size.

Viteles and Gardner concluded that women were more likely to be involved in an accident than men, responsible for .767 accidents (per thousand miles) versus .257 accidents for men. The authors looked at the month of November 1927 to investigate the relative costs of these accidents and found that women were involved in less serious accidents, costing $2.68 (per thousand miles) versus $5.77 for men. To the authors, this suggested that women were overly cautious drivers, and the mistakes they made resulted in minor accidents, which did little damage and minimal cost to the company. They suggested that women drivers be provided with more or better training to reduce their accident rates.

Although Viteles provided this article for Cab Research Bureau when queried 12 years later, he cautioned against adding undue weight to its conclusions. This is reflected in his July 18, 1941, letter to E. S. Higgins (Morris Viteles papers). Viteles was particularly aware that women now had more of a history of driving than they had earlier, and this change should be taken into consideration. He stated that, “it is quite possible that conditions have changed since 1928 because during the past decade women are learning to drive at an earlier age and are driving more regularly than did the women of the earlier era” (Morris Viteles papers). In addition, Viteles now lamented his earlier comparison of women, who were essentially inexperienced drivers, with men who had all levels of experience. He felt it would be more appropriate to compare their accident rates with inexperienced taxicab drivers rather than all taxicab drivers. At least, Viteles impressed upon Higgins, “this possibility should be considered in arriving at a policy with respect to the employment of women taxicab drivers.” (Morris Viteles papers).

Of course, the taxi industry’s decision on whether to hire women would shortly be made for them. Many American men would soon head overseas to fight in World War II, leaving women as the more available option. Though, driving cabs remain a male-dominated profession today; as late as 2000 only 13% of taxi/limousine drivers were women (Schaller, 2004). Perhaps this fact contributes to lingering stereotypes about driving performance—or perhaps the opposite sex is still the easier target. As in the 1920s, if you are taking a cab, the answer as to who is driving you home tonight is likely still a man.

Viteles’ research into gender differences only samples his work for Yellow Cab. In fact, he later conducted a similarly themed study looking for potential racial (Black vs. White) differences in performance (Morris Viteles papers). Regardless, Viteles’ willingness to publish this early study comparing the job performance of men versus women is testament to both the patronage of E. S. Higgins and Viteles’ desire to share what he knew with the field. Viteles set an example for future I-O psychologists on how to effectively blend research and practice.

References

Box #2167, Folder 5, The Morris Viteles papers. Archives of the History of American Psychology, Center for the History of Psychology, The University of Akron.
Schaller Consulting, (2004). The changing face of taxi and limousine drivers: U.S. large states and metro areas and New York City. Brooklyn, NY: Author.
Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association (TLPA). (2012).  History. Retrieved from http://www.tlpa.org/about/history.cfm
Thompson, A. S. (1997). Morris S. Viteles. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 34(4), 151–153.
Thompson, A.S. (1998). Morris S. Viteles. American Psychologist, 53, 1153–1154.
Viteles, M. S. (1967). Morris S. Viteles. In E. G. Boring & G. Lindzey (Eds.), A history of psychology in autobiography (Vol. 5, pp. 415–449). New York, NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Viteles, M. S., & Gardner, H. M. (1929). Women taxicab drivers: Sex differences in proneness to motor vehicle accidents. The Personnel Journal, 7(5), 349–355.