This week, by request from Marilyn in Massachusetts, we’ll cover fear of driving. As fellow Bay Staters, Marilyn and I know that Massachusetts drivers are not called Massholes for nothing. Indeed, of the cities with the dubious distinction of having the worst drivers in the nation, 3 of the top 5 are in Massachusetts.
But no matter where you live, being scared to drive can really get in the way; indeed, if life is a highway, it’s easy for a phobia to push you into breakdown lane. Unless we’re lucky enough to live in a city with great public transportation, driving is necessary for basic freedom and independence.
But not all fear of driving looks the same: there are generally four reasons people are afraid to drive.
The first is a traumatic experience. Let’s take Nora for example: When Nora was twenty-five, she was driving home from a night out and got hit by a driver who was texting. Thankfully, even though her car was totaled, Nora was relatively unscathed and just needed a few stitches. But three years later, she hasn’t driven since.
If your story is like Nora’s, it makes sense that you don’t feel safe in a car. For you, the possibility of an accident is all too real and all too salient. If you’re having nightmares or flashbacks (also called re-experiencing), are on edge, tense, easily startled, and have trouble sleeping (also called hyperarousal), avoiding the car (predictably called avoidance) completes the trifecta of posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Indeed, up to one-third of people who are in a serious accident have PTSD 30 days or more after the accident.
A second theme of driving fear is Erik’s. Erik sometimes has panic attacks, and while he’s never had one while driving, he’s convinced that if he does, he’ll lose control of the car and unintentionally re-create the big crash scene in Talladega Nights (“Rickyyyy!”).
The problem is that his fear creates a cycle: Erik’s fear that he’s a split second away from a horrible accident is stressful, and stress (a pounding heart, feeling lightheaded, and more) feels a lot like panic, which in turns convinces him he’s on the verge of an attack. Next thing Erik knows, he’s pulled over on the side of the road, convinced he narrowly missed panicking and losing control of the car.
Our third variation is Karla. Karla gets stressed thinking that she’s a bad driver, is annoying everyone, and is in everyone’s way. She experiences driving as a performance, like she’s being tested and judged by everyone on the road. As a result, she hates parallel parking, especially when someone is waiting, and dislikes waiting for left turns because someone going straight might end up getting impatient with her.
Finally, there’s Ali. Ali is afraid of the possibility of an accident and just doesn’t trust his driving skills, much less the skills of others. He drives, but reluctantly and only on local roads—no highways. He’ll go out of his way to avoid a bridge or tunnel, and only takes left turns if there’s a designated green arrow.
So in a world of fast and furious, how can these four people, plus our listener Marilyn, feel safe and content?
No matter your version of driving fear, the cure will be getting back on the road. But you don’t have to go from zero to sixty (you knew that one was coming)—instead, work your way back slowly.
So let’s go back to driver’s ed, of sorts—just without the teenage acne or the gym teacher in the passenger’s seat.