Panic attacks while driving!
April 13, 2011 9:25 PM   Subscribe

I am terrified of driving cars. I don't have much experience driving (lived in a large city and used public transportation until recently). I find myself thinking that I will get into a car accident every time I get into the car. It is especially bad on the highway, and I even experience shortness of breath and major anxiety while on the highway. Help!

Anyone have strategies for minimizing the fear? What statistics are out there in terms of getting in an accident, injury or death and the cause of the accident? Anyone experience similar fears? Thanks for your help.
posted by Equiprimordial to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
You've just got to keep driving. That's the only way. I've been there and I know just where you're sitting, and I hate to tell you, you've just got to get through it by driving as often as you can, being safe, and building your confidence. Even now if I haven't driven in a while and get behind the wheel, or have to do something I don't commonly do, I start sweating and getting dizzy. Trust me, learning the exact statistics won't help you. Driving is the most dangerous thing most people do every day, and you either have to take that knowledge, assimilate it, and soldier on anyway, or stop driving.

One way I found to help out with the initial horror I felt was to come up with places I really, really was excited to get to, and drive to those places. So, I'd go to Disneyland, or to the mall to get a new dress, or something else that was fun enough that I could tell myself the scariness of driving was worth the jollity of the destination.

Another thing that helped was driving for long stretches on the freeway - I lived a three-hour drive from my folks so I had lots of excuses to do this. Ultimately freeway driving is pretty easy once you've merged on, just stay in your lane and go the speed limit, and picking a longish drive gives you a chance to calm down and feel like you're in command of the vehicle and not a nervous wreck. I found this helped me to disassociate panic from being behind the wheel, since once I was in my lane I could turn on music, sing along, and approach the activity of driving with a little less freaking out.

Finally: I touched on it above, but good music helps. It makes you feel like your car is a place that's non-hostile to you, and it can help calm you down. Make a mix of all your very favorite songs and put it on when you're driving. I found myself looking forward to long drives more because I knew I'd only hear music I liked, for hours, which is a nice prospect.

All the best to you. I know this is really hard, and I'm sure you can get past it and become a perfectly fine driver. Just keep getting on the it were :)
posted by troublesome at 9:47 PM on April 13, 2011 [5 favorites]

It may sound crazy, but if they have one near you, you may want to take one of those high-performance racing classes. They teach you the same things that they teach race car drivers, and one of the main things that they teach is how to be safe, and how to properly handle your car. It is in a controlled environment, so you don't have to worry about crashing into people, and once you have taken the class, the driving conditions out on the streets will seem much easier. I often hear people suggest these classes for teenagers who have learned how to drive, but want to be better drivers, so the classes are definitely not just for people who want to go a million miles an hour.
posted by markblasco at 9:50 PM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I must concur with troublesome. I had a driving phobia that lasted for over a decade and I just got my license four months ago, after about 2.5 years of lessons. Now I am calm behind the wheel. But that's because I was taking lessons from someone who got over her own driving phobia and didn't yell at me all the time and let me take it very slowly. I built up to going on the freeway (and when I started, it was in the dead of midnight or so). Maybe your issue is that you are going from zero-I-don't-drive-daily to 75-omg-freeway-traffic-daily, without any buildup in the middle? That might not be something you can help given your current life situation though.

Either way... well, the more you do it, the more you know what you're doing and stop freaking out at every other car in the road so much.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:54 PM on April 13, 2011

Numbers won't help you. Experience, practice, working to improve. These are the things that will get you where you want to be, so to speak.

Driving is a skill, like playing the piano. It takes time and focused effort to improve and most drivers give up improving at chopsticks (i.e., getting their license). But it is simply another skill, nothing to fret over.

If you have time to worry about accidents, you aren't paying enough attention to what you are doing.

My father was a WWII bomber pilot/navigator. He taught us kids to drive like we were pilots:

* Your only responsibility while behind the wheel is the safety of your vehicle and those who are in it. Nothing else matters, not the phone, not the scenery, not your coffee. Nothing.

* Keep your head on a swivel, your eyes moving. Constantly. Never let them rest on any one thing for more than a second or two. Side mirrors, rear-view mirror, gauges (yes, even the gas gauge), look left, look right, notice which cars have moved relative to your position.

* Practice anticipating what other drivers will do. You can get surprisingly good at this. Look at the front wheels of the other cars -- they will move before anything else.

*Practice anticipating emergency situations, like sudden breaking of the cars ahead of you. Plan your "escape route" or your evasive maneuvers. Look for where dogs or kids could run out between cars, or a bicycle could swerve to dodge a drainage grate. These types of things.

*Learn the driving characteristics of your car. How long does it take to stop when going 40 MPH, for example? In the rain? In the snow? How fast can you take a sharp turn before the tires lose their grip? This is important information to have in your brain before you have to make an emergency maneuver.

The more you put your attention on the task at hand the sooner your actions will become automatic.
posted by trinity8-director at 10:07 PM on April 13, 2011 [11 favorites]

I had the same experience of moving from a place where I didn't need to drive to one where I have to drive. I am finally getting the hang of it. First, I tell myself that I am a safe driver. So I have a few rules which mentally prepare me:
- I plan my route well so I don't overtake at the last minute to change lanes
- I don't tailgate
- I drive at a safe speed
- I'd rather make an extra U-turn than rush to make a late turn
- I let anyone cut into my lane because I am not interested in aggressive driving
- I always, always check my blind spot - especially important on the highways

I also drove a lot non-highways road to become confident. I started on the highway by driving the same route regularly. Then, I added another route. Then another. After a while, I had a good "repertoire", and driving on highways, including new routes, was less stressful. I am still very attentive, but much less stressed. Sometimes, I even practice deep breathing at red stops.

Good luck!
posted by serunding at 10:08 PM on April 13, 2011

I taught someone who had something a bit similar. We practiced in empty parks and parking lots late at night.

After she could get some basic driving done (circles and parking), I used a beater car and "borrowed" some traffic cones. We practiced hitting a few. Then we did an old plastic garbage can I no longer wanted. Go ahead, drive into the curb (slowly, of course). Yup, you hit the curb. That's what it feels like. You're still okay. The final exercise was to put a small dent next to the others on the bumper.

She said it helped her feel like the world was not going to automatically end if something minor happened.
posted by adipocere at 10:09 PM on April 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

I was the exact same way, I still get nervous about driving on the highway. I just got my license in August out of necessity, if I had my way I wouldn't have gotten it. But now I'm used to it and can drive almost anywhere (Boston still scared the crap out of me). ANd honestly the best advice has already been said, just practice and keep driving and you will get used to it. Go out early morning so you can see everything clearly and have fewer cars so you can get practice and as people wake up and start to drive you will slowly get used to more and more cars on the road. The most important piece of advice I can give you is have confidence in yourself. If you're not confident it's going to show in your driving and that's not what you want. If your anxious about the routes your going to take look it up on google maps and do street view so you can see what lanes your supposed to be in and where your supposed to go so that you can be prepared.

Never become comfortable behind the wheel though, my dad always said, "When you be come comfortable behind the wheel that's when accidents happen" so always stay alert.

Good luck! I know how it can be, but just be confident and keep driving!
posted by lilkeith07 at 10:10 PM on April 13, 2011

I think it could be helpful to really get to know your car's blind spots and dimensions. Have a friend go out with you to an empty parking lot (i'd suggest a public school's lot over a weekend) and adjust all your mirrors so that as you slowly drive past them, you can always see where they are. By minimizing your blind spots and especially by learning yours car's exact sight limitations, you definitely empower yourself on the road. If you're doubting or don't know your car's blind spots, you put yourself in a pretty scary situation every time you switch lanes.
Good luck!
posted by robobrent at 10:14 PM on April 13, 2011

This is completely normal for someone without a lot of driving experience. Heck, I get a little nervous about merging onto the highway in fast-moving heavy traffic, or driving the highway at night in heavy rain or snow--even though I've commuted to work on the highway for over a year. Practice makes perfect. I find that listening to a good radio station helps--the part of the brain that does the worrying is occupied with grooving to the music, leaving the rest of me to concentrate on driving. Remember that nobody else on the road wants to hit you and other drivers will generally do whatever they can to avoid getting into an accident with you. Remember that you've driven for X hours and have not killed anybody.
posted by phoenixy at 10:15 PM on April 13, 2011

Think of the thousands and thousands of idiots that get behind the wheel every day and drive while eating, reading, applying makeup, talking on the phone, and all kinds of other things that distract them from paying attention to the road. Think of all the people who drive with tunnel vision and no awareness whatsoever of what is going on alongside or behind them. The vast majority of these people survive every single day driving irresponsibly, without causing or becoming involved in accidents on the road. If you are a conscientious driver your odds of surviving are even better.

In my opinion highway driving is actually easier than city driving. Sure the speeds are higher, but everybody is traveling at a similar speed, in the same direction, and there is plenty of room in each lane. Just drive at a comfortable speed and stay in a middle lane if you can. You don't want to spend any more time than is necessary in the fast lane on the left or the merging lane on the right. When you do have to change lanes, make sure it is clear. Don't run into anybody from behind, and you're golden.

It really does get easier with practice. Drive at a comfortable speed, but try to stay with the flow of traffic if it's heavy. Look as far down the road as you can and scan your mirrors regularly. Be aware of which cars are approaching quickly from behind and which ones you are overtaking. Try not to keep pace with other drivers in their blind spots. Keep an eye out for erratic drivers. Notice which cars change lanes without signalling or are constantly on their brakes (these are the tailgaters or the too-timid drivers). Before long you'll be able to accurately predict which cars are going to cut in front of you or apply their brakes in front of you, and you'll be able to avoid them with ease. Let the impatient drivers pass you and that's the last you'll see of them. Pass the timid ones yourself and you won't see them again either. Everyone else is just like you, just trying to get where they're going without incident.

And always remember that nobody else on the road wants to get in an accident either.
posted by Balonious Assault at 10:18 PM on April 13, 2011

Great advice above. One thing that can help is that there will be people in a hurry, always, who want you to drive perfectly. No late lane changes to your right so that you can take that right turn; don't merge into their lane from the ramp onto the freeway; race ahead on a green signal, otherwise you'll hear the Horn of Helm Hammerhand in your ears. In short, there shouldn't be any car 1 mile around them.

Don't mind them. Go the speed limit, stay on the right as much as possible, skip the turn if you are in the wrong lane and best of all, plan your route ahead. Hell, I eve took a 2-hour drive a couple of times before an interview so that I could scout out the route, the tricky lanes/intersections and the parking lot before the actual day.

Oh and if you use a GPS, just listen to it, but don't look at the damn thing. It nearly got me killed a couple of times!
posted by theobserver at 10:22 PM on April 13, 2011

Use your ears!
I would disagree with using music in the car. Your hearing is probably one of the best senses you have with you on the road - it covers all directions at once, while your eyes can only look at one thing at a time. This is so you are reassured that no vehicles will sneak up on your blindspot or from a direction you aren't expecting.

Look at their eyes!
I would also disagree with looking at the tyres of other vehicles. I would say you need to look at their eyes. It lets you know whether to be extra wary of the other driver or not - you can see if they're distracted. Whenever I see someone with their eyes not on the road, talking to a partner, digging around their handbag or texting / talking on the phone, I'm immediately put on my guard and in high alert and assume they can't see me. I've been right a few times - cars failed to yield right of way to me and I avoided an accident because I knew beforehand they weren't going to see me. Doing this reassures you that other drivers are aware of your presence and will actively avoid you if you screw up.

There are many practical steps you can take to reduce your risk and further reassure yourself (but not all of them may be available to you - I don't know).

(1) Drive a safe car. Theoretically... if there's one thing in your entire life that you're going to spend money on, get car with a 5 star NCAP safety rating. I mean, it's a fact that MVAs (motor vehicle accidents) are one of the largest (if not the largest, depending on your country) causes of death and injury in young males. The ones with the highest ratings are designed so even if you hit a brick wall at a good clip you'll not only walk out of there without serious injury but the door hinges will be in perfect condition so you can just open the door and get out.

(2) With this assurance, nothing less than a head on collision with another car or driving at ridiculous speeds should put you in physical danger... in which case, the advice would be to avoid the fast lane / passing lane (since that puts you in closest proximity to oncoming traffic) and don't speed...

(3) At this point the only concern in hitting another vehicle is the vehicular damage - so make sure you have good insurance. Nothing that can't be solved by throwing money at the problem.

(4) And the only thing at this point that you can't solve with money is running over a pedestrian or cyclist and killing them. And I'd argue that this risk is one that you should rightfully be paranoid about.
posted by xdvesper at 11:48 PM on April 13, 2011

I went from fearing and hating driving, to loving it. And buying a sportscar.
I think the first steps are more than covered above. Once you have enough practice for it to be muscle memory - ie the car does what you want it to, rather than you having to operate the controls the car in a such a manner as to direct it to do what you want, then it becomes immensely easier.

Then (kind of like the bomber piolot advice) you make it a game - how good can you be? Don't bother aiming for "excellent", aim for "superpowers".
Nothing shall escape your eagle vision!
How far into the future can you see? How accurate is your future-vision? Ok, a car did something you didn't anticipate, well then figure out how you could have foreseen it so next time you do see it. If you can't figure out a way to foresee it, how can you drive such that you don't ever need to foresee it because you never allow yourself to get into a situation where it matters?

How many cars (and other traffic!) around you can you track at once? Awesome! How long can you sustain it?

Something I'm toying with at the moment, so I don't know yet whether it's a good idea or a bad idea, is to stop looking at other cars, and focus on searching for peds and cyclists. My hunch is that when looking for the harder-to-spot guys, I'll easily see cars - I won't be able to help but see them because they'll drown out the subtle clues I'm searching for, but I'll spot the invisible guys at greater distance because they're what I'm directly looking for. I'm experimenting with this because cyclists with no lights and peds dressed in black are hard to see at night when surrounded by powerful headlamps of other traffic, and the natural reaction is to judge where traffic is by where the headlamps are, which reduces the distance at which you notice the ones without lamps.
I'm mentioning this as a example of experiments that hone your superpowers (or not, I'll find out) while at the same time make the driving more interesting and more engaging.

It feels good to be good at something. So don't just aim to be not afraid of driving, aim to be AWESOME! Because, hell, you're going to have to drive anyway, so why not?! :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 11:56 PM on April 13, 2011

It may sound crazy, but if they have one near you, you may want to take one of those high-performance racing classes.

An episode of Fifth Gear from some years back dealt with scared drivers and getting past that fear, and started with high-performance classes -- specifically, with circuits of an oval at high speed, then constant circuits at highway speed, so that it no longer felt fast.

It then moved to motorway driving, where a psychologist talked the driver through the panic, and got her to establish space between her car and the one in front, then maintain that space, while staying in control of the decisions she made to change lanes, instead of feeling intimidated and forced into making manoeuvres on other drivers' behalf.

Watch the linked video. Really. (The main sections start at 10:45 and 19:20.)
posted by holgate at 1:46 AM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree that it's about skills. If you have a honed toolbox of analytical procedures and solutions trained in, your panic level will drop. So in whatever form, try to get that type of information.

Adding one item to trinity8's list

*Learn how to show others what you are about to do, by signaling, and cultivating a clear driving style.

This is the flip side of
"Practice anticipating what other drivers will do."

A lot of the stuff that 'almost happens' has to do with others being undecided about where to drive, and unclear in their signals. Don't be one of those. Bonus point: people will generally treat you with more respect on the road.
posted by Namlit at 1:59 AM on April 14, 2011

Thanks to an arsehole ex who made driving anywhere a misery (liked to start arguments during journeys and once grabbed the wheel whilst on the motorway) I became a nervous driver, I have gotten a lot better with time.

Little things that help:

- Not having an arsehole in the car.

- Going for drives just for fun with no deadline for arrival or even a destination in mind.

- Chewing gum (this replaced smoking as a stress reliever when driving for me when I first gave up smoking, I've managed to wean off the gum too now).

- Getting my eyes tested, whilst I don't legally need glasses for driving turns out I was short sighted enough that I couldnt read road signs as early as someone with 20/20, having glasses decreased general stress levels when I suddenly had more time to make decisions.

- Being confident in my car - would love to afford a newer one but I do try and keep the banger I do have maintained and if anything feels wrong I try not to put off getting it fixed.

- Making sure I have my phone with me, with my insurance company accident helpline number and my breakdown recovery membership info. The occassions I've called my recovery service I've been truly impressed at how calm and considerate they were, they must train them to deal with very stressed out customers. (Me in floods of tears stuck in the middle of three lane traffic with fuel gushing out of my car and not knowing what the road I was on called, hoo boy that was stressful but the guy on the other end of the phone was absolutely marvellous as was the recovery guy who showed up)

- Leaving plenty of time to get somewhere if its an unusual or unfamiliar journey, I'd rather arrive way to early and sit in the car for half an hour than get stressed about being late en route. I usually take a book with me to pass the time when parked up.

- Having a satnav. I've got a terrible sense of direction which would add to general stress levels. Should have gotten one of these years ago, missed a turn? No problem, just keep going, the satnav will work it out for you.
posted by Ness at 2:16 AM on April 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Find ways to drive that minimize your stress behind the wheel. Your main aid here is space around your car. Drive to maximize that.

How often have you seen, on the highway, one car following another and frequently tapping on the brakes? That's a driver under completely avoidable stress.

The two-second rule: you should, to the greatest extent practicable, and at any speed of traffic, be at least two seconds behind the car in front of you; five is even better. Many, many people violate this simple rule, and as a result, they get in trouble for lack of reaction time.

There is really no need to close up those gaps; space around your car is your friend.
posted by flabdablet at 6:22 AM on April 14, 2011

Without glasses I have terrible depth perception. I also get anxiety attacks, and have been the passenger in no less than 3 rear end collisions. My terror of driving has been such that the worse my anxiety got, the worse my eyes got, I didn't drive other than emergencies for the better part of 7 years. Last year I bought a car. I started driving it this year. Little trips at first, but it got easier to drive further with less panic the more I did it. I have meds for the anxiety, but the more I drive, the easier it gets and the less I need them.

If I can do it, you can do it! I drove on the highway at night for the first time in 10 years last week and it was fine.
posted by Zophi at 7:16 AM on April 14, 2011

US filter: consider a defensive driving class if you haven't taken one. They're not that expensive and will give you a lot of tips and tricks for improving your driving safety (both for yourself and by responding to other drivers). Plus in some states, you get a discount on your car insurance cost for taking them.

My experience is that a comedy driving class, while not the best place to spend a Saturday afternoon, is at least moderately entertaining, and makes me more conscious of how I can be safe on the road. Other than practice, practice, practice, they're one of the only things I know that improves my confidence in my driving.
posted by immlass at 7:23 AM on April 14, 2011

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is often very helpful for people dealing with anxiety. You can find a therapist who will use CBT with you, but because it's a skills-based approach, you can also employ many of the techniques on your own! There are some great exercises you can do to help yourself dismantle and manage your fears, from analyzing your thinking to relaxation exercises, rehearsals, and gradual exposure to what is causing the anxiety. I can't recommend particular books, but this website has some reviews of good CBT books:
posted by aka burlap at 8:02 AM on April 14, 2011

I used to feel similarly to you: after a few abortive attempts to get my license as a teen, I took driving lessons. I finally got my license when I was almost 22. A year and a half later, I'm still shocked that I don't feel pangs of anxiety every minute I'm on the road (it probably took about six months of steady driving to get there, and I still feel it when I have to go somewhere unfamiliar).

I drove because I needed to: I was starting an internship that would take hours to get to via public transportation, so my fear of driving was outweighed by visions of getting up at five or earlier to be there. Yes, it was hard, but taking lessons and then just....driving everywhere really got my confidence up.

Ms. DeucesHigh
posted by DeucesHigh at 3:14 PM on April 14, 2011

Good addition, Namlit!

xdvesper, I actually about looking at the other drivers. Often a turn of the head or a look in the mirror will tip you off to their intentions. I only meant that the front wheels will be the first thing to actually move in a new direction.

Now that I think about it, I often check the wheels when something else tips me that an unexpected move might be in the works. For example, if the idiot over there is having trouble staying in his lane.
posted by trinity8-director at 6:34 PM on April 15, 2011

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