34 y.o. freak who can't (yet) drive-- that's me!
July 9, 2005 2:38 AM   Subscribe

PhobiaFilter: I have had a driving phobia for quite a while. What are some good resources to help me conquer it?

My husband thinks that my major problems were bad depth perception, and psychological trauma from my father's driving lessons as a teenager. (My father is not only terribly impatient and a very unsafe driver, but hw was convinced I was not never going to be able to drive because my mother and my grandmother couldn't, but also going to destroy his clutch.) I took the test as a teenager and flunked, then had surgery the next week, and when I recovered from the surgery I went to college, where even if I had had a car, the places I wanted to go to were closer than the parking lot anyway.) In the intervening years, I never could afford both a car and insurance at the same time, so I never really had an opportunity to learn.

So, now I'm 34. We have one car, which my husband has always needed to get to work, while I'm a stay-at-home mom. My husband's office is moving to the south side of Denver from downtown. We live in the NE metro area. Moving isn't really an option right now, and with the cost of gas so high, we determined that it will be much cheaper for him to commute by public transport. (Bus for now, in about a year a new light rail line will open that will span about half the trip.) So, in a few months the car will be at home with me during the day, presenting me with a good reason to get my license. The depth perception problem was easy enough to solve by wearing glasses. My husband is an infinitely more patient driving teacher than my father was. I got my learner's permit and drove today for the first time in 16-17 years, although just in a parking lot.

I've looked for information online, but every page I find seems to trying to sell me something. Some of them seem like they might work, some of them seem pretty dubious, but I don't have the money for this kind of thing anyway. What free help can I get with this? Things that I can access on-line or borrow from the library are preferred, but I'm open to anything that will work.
posted by Shoeburyness to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I too have a driving phobia, but mine is due to a nasty car accident I got into when I was 17. It was my fault--failure to yield to the right of way--and I got the ticket. The car was in the shop for so long and my parents were so angry at me (and therefore not allowing me to drive their cars) that by the time the car was released 7 months later I was too afraid to drive it. Then I moved, got poor, and so on.. same story as you, basically.

Anyway. I'm 30 now. When I was 27, the mere suggestion that I take the wheel would send me into hyperventilating sweat-soaked terror. Now I have my own car and drive it in a limited but functional enough way. To get to this point I developed a two-part plan.

Part I involved having people I trust teach me how to drive again so that I wouldn't be a menace on the road. I also realized that I had a real fear that I'd forgotten the rules of the road and would kill someone out of ignorance, so taking "lessons" from drivers I knew helped me through that part of the fear. I also picked up the booklet at the DMV that helps you prepare for the driving test and read that a few times. You need to learn how to drive anyway, so this part of the plan is kind of built in for you.

Part II involved repetitive exposure to driving. For months I did all the driving when I went anywhere with other people. They knew the score, so they'd tell me what to do if I started to look panicky. They were extremely patient. It would often take twice as long for us to get to our destination when I was driving but no one ever chastised me for it. Anything that scared me more than usual, we'd do. Through this method I conquered my fear of drive-through windows, turning left, driving in the dark, and putting gas in my car. I still don't drive unless I absolutely have to, but that's because I still suffer from crippling agoraphobia. It has nothing to do with driving.

Good luck! I know you can conquer this. I've actually thrown up in fear while driving, but now I can go to the grocery store or pick up a prescription all by myself thanks to the assistance of understanding people.
posted by xyzzy at 4:02 AM on July 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

I also dislike driving intensely, for reasons somewhat similar to xyzzy's (car crash at 19, didn't drive again for a decade). After I moved to upstate NY, I took driving lessons for several months, which alleviated some of my anxiety. I still get worried when driving unfamiliar routes, but I find that "I did it once, so I can do it again" works wonders. And the sense of freedom is definitely an incentive.
posted by thomas j wise at 5:25 AM on July 9, 2005

I don't have a phobia, but I just learned to drive for the first time at age 39 and I do have poor depth perception due to amblyopia. I took lessons from a professional driving teacher (Sears Driving School), and while I was very nervous and scared at first, I progressed quite well. Taking it one-step-at-a-time was a big part of that, I think. Also, my teacher had something he said about the difference between a rational and an irrational fear. There are a lot of rational things to fear about driving a car, but you can learn to control your circumstances (driving well, driving defensively) to minimize them. I would urge you to give it a try, learn from a professional (get recommendations in your area from other people who learned to drive as an adult), and be honest with them about your fears - they've seen it all before and they know what to do. Good luck! I love driving now.
posted by matildaben at 6:28 AM on July 9, 2005

My mom got into a traffic accident a few years ago, rear ended on a highway and slammed into the divider, totaling her car. 3 weeks later I flew to visit her. This was at the time I was interviewing for graduate schools. The original plan was for her to drive me to my first interview, a 3 hour trip on the highway, but she was completely incapable of driving any distances, just getting into the car would raise her anxiety level. At the same time she refused to let me drive. I had recently been certified in NLP and asked if she would be willing to do a little work together. It took a half hour (2 tries), at the end of which her fear was completely gone. The next day she drove me to the interview, completely calm, and her symptoms never returned.

In your case, I wouldn't call it a classic phobia, more of an anxious fear (whereas a phobia has a very specific trigger that generates an overwhelming response). In any case something like NLP, hypnosis or even EMDR could probably make a big impact on your state in a very short amount of time.
posted by blueyellow at 8:06 AM on July 9, 2005

In the Denver area you could try this place (I think the founders are excellent). They might have a sliding scale, or maybe some of their students would want to "practice" with you for free or a nominal amount.
posted by blueyellow at 8:15 AM on July 9, 2005

Your question was regarding a fear of driving but you end by saying "but that's because I still suffer from crippling agoraphobia. It has nothing to do with driving". You seem to have considerable pluck and courage and have taken very reasonable steps to overcome your fear of driving. Is your agoraphobia more problematic than your fear of driving--after all--if you are afraid to leave the house (or be outside) you are going to be anxious driving. Agoraphobia is a bit more challenging than a fear of driving as agoraphobia is less stimulus specific and is more prone to generalized responses. The same strategies you used , successfully, to manage the fear of driving are applicable to agoraphobia. If I were you I would consult a therapist trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and consider a trial of medication (SSRIs/SNRIs) with possibly a modest dose of a benzodiazapine to manage the acute anxiety (assuming you have no alcohol/drug dependency history). Anyway--somehow I know this is a problem you are going to manage.
posted by rmhsinc at 9:09 AM on July 9, 2005

I have some problems with feeling comfortable with driving. I find that driving short distances frequently helps.
posted by Caviar at 11:13 AM on July 9, 2005

Get in as much practice as you can while the weather is warm and the roads are dry. As a teenager I got into a very minor fender bender due to icy roads (in Denver, in fact. I'm not nervous about driving normally but slick/icy roads definitely raise my stress levels.) That way when the bad weather hits, you're already fairly comfortable behind the wheel. xyzzy's plan sounds like a good one- by driving everywhere you can with drivers you trust, you'll get exposed to all different conditions. Don't be afraid of heavy rush hour traffic- when I found myself in Manhattan with a car, I discovered that rush hour was the best time to learn my way around (I'd lived there for years, but the highways were new to me) because when traffic is moving at the speed of molasses, you actually have time to figure out which lane you need to be in, when you have to move over to exit, etc. It sounds god-awful, but if you aren't under time pressure, I-25 in slow motion is easier to learn.

Good luck. I'm tempted to volunteer my 70-year old father, who taught me to drive, on a stick, in Denver, and had me getting on I-25 the very first time I got behind the wheel. He's very relaxed: "oh, you'll be fine, don't worry" kind of teacher.
posted by ambrosia at 11:26 AM on July 9, 2005

Good for you. Deciding that it's something that you will conquer is, I think, the hardest part. I would second a couple of the things here. Take it in really small steps. Start off driving only with other drivers in the car, and don't do anything that particularly makes you uncomfortable for a couple of weeks. Don't go on the freeways yet. Get really used to the feel of the car and basic stuff first, until you can operate the controls pretty automatically. Once you've got that down, try some tougher terrain -- there are a bunch of roads up towards Morrison, but before you cross the hogbacks, that are really good for practicing without much traffic.

When you feel good about that, start taking short trips alone, just in your neighborhood. Again, don't do things that make you uncomfortable, as long as you're doing _something_. Just go around your block if that's all you want to do. Work up to going to the store, etc. Try to drive everyday.

I would leave highway driving until last, especially since you can get anywhere in Denver without using them. I would include all of Denver's sort of fake highways in that as well, like Hampton and 6th Avenue. I would maybe also avoid Colfax and Santa Fe until you're more comfortable. There's nothing inherently bad about those streets, but they'll be a lot easier to navigate if you are already comfortable with operating the car. When you are ready for highways, start again with another driver in the car, and go slow (don't DRIVE slow, just progress slowly).

Oh, and don't take your kids in the car until you are very comfortable.

Good luck! Let us know how it goes.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 11:44 AM on July 9, 2005

Go to a large empty carpark or similar place and learn to drive there, church carparks are good midweek. Spend as long as you need there and practice things like stopping suddenly, parallel parking, starting on a hill if you have a stick- (speedbumps make good "hills", try to balance on top of them using only the clutch and gas) and anything else that makes you nervous like driving at night. If controlling the car is already becoming second nature then navigating through traffic will be much easier for you.
posted by fshgrl at 11:52 AM on July 9, 2005

rmhsinc wrote:
The same strategies you used , successfully, to manage the fear of driving are applicable to agoraphobia.

I am sorry, but this seems like bad advice in the sense that she will continue to think about both fears indefinitely. Why should she "manage" something she could just get rid of?
posted by blueyellow at 1:00 PM on July 9, 2005

Exposure is key as others have said, and it's great that your husband is a patient teacher. But if I were you, I would get a real professional teacher at a solid driving school (not one of those places designed to help you get your license, but one of those places designed to keep you out of accidents). Learn to be a defensive driver and you'll have less reason to be afraid.

I went to Young Drivers, and in addition to the normal rules of the road, here's how you make a 3-point turn etc. we practiced/simuluated various emergency procedures (you're sitting at a red light...guy behind you not stopping... you're about to be rear-ended! NOW!). It's pricey, but worth the money.
posted by duck at 1:52 PM on July 9, 2005

blueyellow--my apologies to you and other posters--I misread the question and responded to the second post by XYZZY as if it was the question--I need to be more careful--oh well, it was a good answer to the wrong problem Thanks for the heads up
posted by rmhsinc at 3:21 PM on July 9, 2005

slightly offtopic but something I've been wondering...

Is it all that unusual -not- to want to learn how to drive? I'm 33 and shudder at the thought. Literally. Never learned, don't want to. I was behind the wheel twice in my life; the first time I literally passed out afterwards and the second I was shaking uncontrollably for like 15 minutes.

I don't consider it to be a liability; if I need to drive there and nobody can take me, I just don't go.

This causes endless arguments with the SO, who sees me as stubborn and inflexible...the argument is usually "Things would be so much easier on me if you would drive" or "we could go there if you drove..."

To me, I'll be happy to die without ever getting a license.
posted by geckoinpdx at 4:50 PM on July 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

Just a little reminder.. *I'm* the one with horrible agoraphobia.. the original poster just has a driving fear. I just mentioned it so that I could explain why my two part plan wasn't a smashing success, as it were. But thanks for the encouragement about agoraphobia anyway. :) I can always use it.
posted by xyzzy at 6:49 PM on July 9, 2005

xyzzy: If you are interested in curing your agoraphobia , without the suggested drugs, or repeatedly reexperiencing your fear, as per the CBT desensitization approaches, you can try this NLP center in NYC, which is very good and respected in the community. Here are a few resources on what they might do 1 and 2. Good luck.
posted by blueyellow at 9:44 PM on July 9, 2005

Response by poster: An Update, if anyone will see it as it's off the AskMe front page:
Today I backed out of the garage, drove around on neighborhood streets, and even drove a short way on a fairly busy street to the grocery store. Nothing bad yet, although I did get some young guy in a flashy car take off from behind me in a huff because I was too slow getting out of the grocery store parking lot for his taste. So far, no panic attacks or the like. I did also used to have a phobia of needles that I conquered a few years ago, and without having done that I probably wouldn't have thought I could tackle driving. I have also been in a number of accidents in my life, mostly with my father, and one with a former boyfriend. My earliest memory is of a car wreck, and it's very vivid and pre-verbal. It also has a strong smell associated with it (some kind of horrible smelly rubber or latex stuff that they made car seats out of in the early '70s, mixed with vomit as I was constantly carsick as a toddler.) I feel that's also been a big contributor to the phobia. I'f anyone is really that interested in following my progress, I'll put a link to my LiveJournal in my profile.
posted by Shoeburyness at 4:39 AM on July 10, 2005

Shoeburyness, congratulations! It's great to hear you are tackling your fear. (I love to drive. Ironically, I haven't owned a car in nearly 20 years -- since I figured out it was much less hassle for me personally than having one here in San Francisco.)
Good luck!
posted by trip and a half at 9:18 AM on July 10, 2005

Response by poster: Another Update--
Today I drove to the library two towns over where I used to live (the local library is worthless.) About 16 miles on busyish streets. Then we drove to Fort Collins, had dinner, drove to the Wyoming border and back again. Only had one near-panic attack trying to get back on I-25 North out of Ft. Collins, due to miscommunication. (I think he said left and gestured right, or vice-versa, or something.) I made it almost all the way back, but we stopped at Loveland and my husband took over, because I was exhausted from being so tense.
posted by Shoeburyness at 10:44 PM on July 10, 2005

Good for you, Shoeburyness! I was thinking about this thread and remembering how when I had my learner's permit I drove with my parents from Denver to Iowa, and I did most of the driving through the wide emptiness of the interstates in the big wide open spaces. It's a great practice for just getting used to the feel of driving, developing the physical memory for adjusting the headlights or windshield wipers or whatever, on a long stretch of empty ribbon with no one else around to worry about. Driving up to the Wyoming border is a great idea.

Good luck!
posted by ambrosia at 9:04 PM on July 12, 2005

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