Driving tests

How to conquer your fear of driving

According to Anxiety UK, driving phobia or ‘vehophobia’ affects as many as one-in-ten drivers, making it one of the most common phobias.

Why do people suffer fear of driving?

Driving phobias are all learned fears. A learned fear of driving can come about for many reasons, for example:

  • Declining health causes uncertainty over driving ability: as a person gets older, they may worry about their reflexes, eyesight and other things that degrade with age
  • Anxiety connected to another fear: claustrophobia (the fear of confined spaces) may be triggered by being in a car
  • Inexperience: the fear of making a mistake through not having had enough practice
  • Previous physically painful experiences: being involved in a vehicle crash, whether driving or not
  • Previous mentally painful experiences connected to a vehicle: parents fighting, or witnessing some traumatic event while driving
  • Previous experience (or lack of) with a prevailing situation: the driver is fine when it’s light, but won’t drive at night.

Vehophobia can cause irrational fears of crashing while behind the wheel, sweating, accelerated pulse, knotted stomach and other physiological symptoms. Drivers may start to create excuses not to drive, avoid driving completely or put themselves in a situation where they sell their vehicle (e.g. moving to a place with no parking so they are forced to).

Vehophobia can be caused by three different scenarios:

Driving-related scenarios

Previous unpleasant experiences behind the wheel can trigger either a blanket fear of driving, or fear in certain scenarios such as difficult weather conditions. For example, the driver had a serious accident in icy weather and now refuses to drive in winter.

Driving-related risks

These are not related to the driving itself, but risk

For example, a previous accident that saw the driver’s vehicle plunge off a bridge, almost causing the driver to drown, may cause an ongoing fear of driving over bridges or next to water, as well as a fear of water itself. Or, a driver may have seen a pet hit and killed on the road and now relates that risk back to their own driving, not wanting to inflict that on another person’s pet.

Indirect fears

Many fears can be triggered simply by the necessary conditions of driving:

  1. A vehicle is an enclosed space so, as we mentioned before, claustrophobia could be an issue.
  2. Tachophobia (fear of speed) might mean that a driver is fine driving around an urban area at 50km/h, but refuses to drive on the open road.
  3. Agoraphobia may cause a person to be fearful of being too far from home.
  4. Fear of losing control (or not being fully in control) would make many situations difficult on the road.
  5. Amaxophobia is the fear of riding in a car
  6. Ochophobia or motorphobia is the fear of vehicles
  7. Mechanophobia is the fear of machines
  8. Traumatophobia is the fear of injury
  9. Some weather scenarios have specific fears, such as chionophobia (fear of snow), nephophobia (fear of clouds) and astraphobia (fear of thunder and lightning)
  10. The fear of bridges is gephyrophobia
  11. At night, vehicle lights may bring on photoaugliaphobia, the fear of blinding lights
  12. Acrophobia is a fear of heights – it may prevent a driver getting into a large truck, or it could be triggered driving over a bridge or at high altitudes
  13. Atychiphobia is the fear of failing and can relate to learner drivers having to take a test

Techniques to get over a fear of driving

It’s perfectly natural for a person’s mind to wander and ponder on the potential catastrophes that happen if something goes wrong while driving. Acknowledging that the fear is real even if the outcome isn’t, is fine. Fears can’t always be allayed with rational thinking, but if they can, do it – look for evidence that debases the fear.

How learner drivers can overcome fear

Many learner drivers experience at least a bit of anxiety when they first learn to drive. A learner driver’s first experience in a car is vitally important. A driving instructor is the best option for a brand new driver as they have the tools to build confidence in a learner driver, ensuring their skills are developed in a sequence that will make them feel comfortable with being on the road without overwhelming them.

Here’s how to choose a good driving instructor.

Parents and supervisors can be overly critical without providing the positive reinforcement required. The learner shouldn’t be put into a situation where they feel completely out-of-control, either.

A learner driver might also have fears around taking the driving test. Techniques that can be used to combat this are using hypnotherapy, using visualisation, and ensuring they are fully prepared for their test.

How experienced drivers can overcome fear of driving

Experienced drivers are often good at using coping mechanisms to deal with temporary bouts of fear, but if the fear becomes too much, it gets difficult to stop a downward spiral into not driving.

One option is to improve knowledge and skill. This can take the form of theory education and practical instruction. Good courses for those afraid of driving are driving in difficult conditions (particularly if it’s related to bad weather), and low-speed manoeuvring. Sessions with a driving instructor can help a driver improve skills which might be causing fears.

If the fear is of injury, purchase the safest car possible and vary your routes to avoid high-risk areas and times.

If the fear is weather-related, avoid travelling at those times.

Of course, improving driving skills won’t affect many of the other phobias outlined above. For these, it’s best to see a professional.

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Darren is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists and the NZ Motoring Writers' Guild

Posted in Advice
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