How do I stop being a fearful driver after a very close call on the road?
November 24, 2009 10:32 AM   Subscribe

A few weeks ago, an oncoming tanker truck ran me off the road on a curvy two-lane highway. I (barely) managed to avoid a collision or rollover but did clip a mailbox. Now whenever I drive the roads in this rural area, I'm constantly worried that oncoming cars are going to veer into my lane.

I've always been a very careful driver and a witness to the accident confirmed my side of the story and said I was lucky to be alive. If I hadn't been paying close attention at that precise moment, he would have hit me head-on. It's comforting to know that what happened wasn't my fault but that doesn't make it any less terrifying!

The experience really shook me, especially since I had my toddler in the backseat at the time. How can I get over this powerful new fear, and when will I stop being so nervous behind the wheel?
posted by balls to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It's post traumatic stress. I suggest you see a psychiatrist who specializes in such cases.
posted by inturnaround at 10:44 AM on November 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

It didn't kill you and it's very unlikely to happen in the same way again.

But if you want to feel more in control, why not try one of those driving schools where they take you out on a skidpad or a track and teach you how to handle a car that's out of control? Nothing makes you more confident behind the wheel than knowing exactly how far you can turn the wheel before the car gets all upset at you, or what happens when you try to apply the brakes when one wheel is on pavement and the other on sand, etc. Plus, it's super fun. Wherever you live, there's sure to be something like this. Happy to help you track something down if you're interested.

Aside from that, a little shock to the system isn't bad, IMO. Remember, you _should_ be a little worried behind the wheel and that fear is what keeps you safe. You're hurdling through space at 60 mph strapped to a steel box. It reminds you that you need to always be alert and on guard. Don't drive too fast for the road. Learn to observe oncoming traffic and look for anyone who isn't holding a steady line. Don't drive distracted. Most importantly: keep your eyes literally as far down the road as you can see.
posted by paanta at 10:49 AM on November 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

It's normal to have this fear after a near-accident. The good news is that over time, that fear will fade into something that's much more useful: A better sense of consciousness on the road. You were already a careful drive, but you have probably learned more about the risks involved in rural areas as a result of this experience, and you will eventually lose the fear and just be a better driver. If you're still scared to death after several months of driving, then I would start to be concerned.

If you really want to do all you can to improve the safety of your driving, you could always take some sort of driving course (learning how to drive in slippery conditions, etc).. but I don't think this will be necessary to regain your calm.
posted by * at 10:50 AM on November 24, 2009

It might get better in time or you might not be able to get over it. The key is to not let your fear cripple you so much that you avoid that stretch of road or any road like it. No matter how hard, force yourself to keep driving where you need to. Slow down if it helps, to hell with the people behind you. Keep telling yourself that the odds of the same thing happening again are pretty slim.

Over fifteen years ago I hit a moose at night on a dark road in northern New Hampshire. I killed the moose and totaled my truck but my friend and I were ok. I still drive at night in New Hampshire, but as soon as I get into the White Mountain region I’m a wreck. Every shadow is the moose that’s going to kill me. I constantly have to apologize to my passengers for driving so slow, especially when oncoming headlights are blinding me. I’m as bad now as I was 15 years ago. It’s never gotten any easier and I don’t expect it to any time soon. Still, I force myself to drive up there when I need to. The alternative is to avoid the region, which is not an option to me.

Don’t focus on “what if.” The results were what they were. “What if” can go either way. Another second one way and you might be dead, sure, but another second the other way and nothing would have happened at all and you’d never have to start this thread. You’ve probably had close calls you didn’t even know about.

Keep being a safe driver. Make sure your seat belt is on and your car is maintained well. Get new brakes and tires if you need them. Be hyper aware of your surroundings. Control what you can, but know that you can’t control everything. Most of all, don’t let your fear get the best of you.
posted by bondcliff at 10:51 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding what * and bondcliff said. When I was in my car accident it really freaked me out because the illusion of security was completely gone. I couldn't pretend that I knew what other people were going to do anymore. But after a little while and being hyper-vigilant when I drove, the fear faded into a much more manageable defensive driver strategy.

The reality is there is no possible way that you will be able to control what other people do in any given situation, and especially while driving. You can choose to live your life in fear of what might possibly happen, or choose to believe you will probably be fine. The former is a rough way to live, and the latter I believe is actually a skill you should have if you drive.

It might help to look at this experience as an opportunity to really appreciate that you are alive and the wonderful things that are in your life. You were paying attention, you did save yourself, and now you are alive to live your life and do the things you want to do.
posted by Kimberly at 11:26 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thank you for the kindly responses, everyone, and for sharing your stories. It looks like this might just be something that will get better with time. I do force myself to drive that stretch of road, even though it scares the hell out of me, because I don't want to become a person who goes 20 miles out of her way to avoid a quarter mile of pavement.

I will definitely look into a defensive driving class--not necessarily because I think it will help, but because it sounds really fun.

Any more advice or "It happened to me!" stories would be greatly appreciated. Cheers.
posted by balls at 11:37 AM on November 24, 2009

As others have said, this is a totally normal reaction to an accident. I agree that the only solution is desensitization and being grateful that you're ok. The word "accident" means a fluke that is beyond your control.

That said, I totally get this feeling -- I was in an accident last week where our car spun out across three lanes of traffic, rolled and hit a tree, and landed on the driver's side in a ditch. Needless to say, I'm a bit touchy right now, and I'll be extra careful in construction areas like the one where we had our accident. But that's all you can do, really. Just continue to be aware and grateful.

(Seatbelts save lives, y'all!)
posted by runningwithscissors at 11:45 AM on November 24, 2009

Jesus, how terrifying. I'm sorry that happened to you.

I went through a...phase...awhile back, where I was in two car-totaling accidents within three years. It was hard to see any good in it at the time, especially when I looked at my new insurance premiums (sigh) or the car parked out front (my third), but the second accident shook me to the core and I am a much more aware and careful driver as a result. Sometimes it kinda borders on grandma-esque. I mean, I don't go miles out of my way to avoid road or anything, but I also won't creep up into intersections to try and sneak in a turn nor gun it through a yellow light; I'll drop below the speed limit if that's what's needed to safely make that curve on an icy day. I've been honked at, flipped off. Whatever. I don't care. It's what I need to do to feel safe in the car.

The good news is, the fear did fade, and faster than I thought it would, leaving only the aforementioned hypervigilance in its place. I trembled like a leaf while driving for about a month after each accident, but you bet I now treat that tricky left turn and that freakishly narrow tunnel with the respect and attention they deserve.

It might help to look at this experience as an opportunity to really appreciate that you are alive and the wonderful things that are in your life. You were paying attention, you did save yourself, and now you are alive to live your life and do the things you want to do.

I second this. Also, try to remember all the times you've driven on those rural roads before when cars didn't veer into your lane. A lot, right?

All the best to you.
posted by anderjen at 11:45 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Almost 50% of accidental deaths in the US are from driving

Driving a car is the most dangerous thing many americans do in their lives. We just don't realize it. Now you do. Getting in a bad accident is not just a fluke. It is an accepted part of our transportation infrastructure.

Re-evaluating your transit choices is a rational response to your accident. Considering the safety of your child, should you continue using the car as much as you currently do?

Advocating for safer roads is another rational response. Can you attempt to get people to understand and pay for safer road design? Tom Vanderbilt wrote an excellent book on the subject Traffic and blogs about road design as well. Did you know that round-abouts are statistically safer than signalized intersections even though we feel that round-abouts are more dangerous?

Yet another rational response is advocating for better drivers. Getting trucking un-exempted from the Fair Labor Standards Act(FLSA) would help improve driver's pay and working conditions.

Glad you are still with us and be safe out there.
posted by GregorWill at 1:08 PM on November 24, 2009

Okay, it happened to me, too. Long story short: Car skidded off the road in a Colorado snowstorm, rolled (several times) down a hill, with my entire family inside. I was a passenger. We all lived, with remarkably few serious injuries.

For days afterwards, I panicked just seeing hills. I panicked when snow began to fall, whether or not I was in a car. I cried a lot. I noticed my entire family fought a lot.

For weeks afterwards, I wondered, when driving, if my car would spontaneously roll down any hill I happened to see. I got nervous when it rained and I was in a car.

Eventually I decided to get "control" over the situation by always making sure that I was the one who drove when my car would be in the mountains, in a hilly area, or anytime the weather was inclement. By being the driver and feeling alert, I thought I could avoid a similar accident. It's worked so far, but I get that's pretty much just a matter of good luck, not my "control," which is probably false.

So, in my opinion, you will get over it, but it will take time. Do whatever it takes to feel your own sense of control over the situation. Press yourself, if you want to. Relax, if you want to. Your timetable is your own.
posted by BlahLaLa at 1:25 PM on November 24, 2009

At some point in my mother's life, she a tire blow out and lost control of the car for a moment. There was no accident, just momentarily lost control. This totally freaked her out and to this day she is afraid to drive. She still does drive, but she's scared stiff when she does and typically averages 25 miles per hour.

Because of her fear, we, her children, were rarely driven anywhere. And when we were, she was an uptight mess.

She refuses to drive at night. In fact, this past week my dad was rushed to the hospital where an emergency appendectomy was performed. Before he was even out of recovery, my mom had left the hospital because it was getting dark out and she's afraid to drive at night and so left.

I'm not one to typically say, "see a therapist," but I am well aware of the crippling effect that being fearful of driving may have. AND, her behavior has affected a few of her children. I'm a little nervous to drive, but not for any reason, just because I was raised that that was how you approach driving - with fear and avoidance at all costs.

I also like the idea of a defensive driving course.
posted by Sassyfras at 2:35 PM on November 24, 2009

Agree with most comments here -- it is likely temporary hypervigilance, and will fade. (I would seek professional help only if flashbacks or other episodes reminiscent of the event began to interfere with your everyday functioning.) I think your defensive driving course idea is great. A Mefite recently recommended Uncle Bob's Rules of Defensive Driving - there are about 70 of them, and it made for good reading. Among other things, Bob is a defensive driving instructor, pilot, and yet someone who's seen and had his share of accidents. (Sorry no link, can't figure out how to do it on this device, but it's easily googlable.) Good for you for your quick reflexes!
posted by dreamphone at 4:15 PM on November 24, 2009

Yeah, ugh, I've been through that, too. I think everyone who's survived a car accident has that reaction. For me, I got through it by accepting that it was normal to feel this way, but gently told myself that "You have to get past this eventually."

Also, take comfort in the fact that your awesome driving skillz saved your life, and the life of your toddler. If you hadn't been paying attention, if you didn't have those kickass reflexes, you'd both be dead by now.

It wasn't just chance that you survived: you leveraged a lifetime of driving experience. You rock!!!
posted by ErikaB at 5:56 PM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

In May, my best friend was badly injured (I was somewhat injured) when a pickup truck with a 17-year-old driver (who had no license) pulled out in front of us. I was driving down the highway at the speed limit or just below (we'd only *just* entered the highway about 1/4 mile before) and he was on our right, turning left - so he came from the right and pulled in front of me. I had approximately 15 feet to react. My car was totalled... his pickup had a little dent.

It's been 6 months and, while I'm finally relaxing behind the wheel, I do tense up from time to time. You should have seen me the night the Michael Jackson tribute was in Gary (I live about 30 minutes away, but didn't attend - spillover traffic) - we had 6 close calls in one night. I was shaking like a leaf. I also backseat-drive anyone I'm riding with... "that car is stopped" "that light is red!" if I feel them approaching too fast. Although one friend has expressed a slight annoyance at my backseat driving, they are all pretty understanding that it's a side effect of the accident.

You said it's only been a few weeks... don't worry. It WILL get better. My doctor told me, and it was the best advice I could get, that I needed to get right back on that horse and keep driving, even if it scared me. And I am very happy to hear that you only had a close call (since you said you only clipped the mailbox) and not a severe accident.

For your own peace of mind, why don't you find the nearest police station or hospital that checks car seat/toddler seat installations and make sure you've got it installed good and tight? Just another practical step you can take to reassure yourself.
posted by IndigoRain at 2:57 AM on November 25, 2009

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