My tank's on empty.
June 17, 2007 9:38 PM   Subscribe

I'm afraid of the Interstate. What can I do about this fear?

I'm terrified of driving the Interstate.

While I've never been a fan of driving, I was in an accident that really shook me up. I have no problems driving on the highway, but the Interstate gives me pause. Entrance ramps in particular are bad.

I keep forcing myself to drive on the Interstate--even if only a few miles. But when I decide I "have" to drive, I feel nauseous and horrible. It ruins my entire day. Because of my fear, I miss out on fun things.

I feel that my fear is "irrational." But at the same time, it makes perfect sense. In the past two days alone, there were seven wrecks not even twenty miles from me!

My friends and family understand that I'm worried. I mooch rides off of them all the time. But I don't think they know the extent of my fear.

What can I do? Would a therapist help, or would it be a waste of time?
posted by anonymous to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
[Can you tell the mods to give us a rough location for where you are? Urban and rural interstates are vastly different places.]

I have a few ideas.

First, one step to conquering fear is educating yourself about risks. One of the best ways to cure a fear of flying is learning what all the beeps and bongs and flashing lights in the cabin mean, or why the flaps are doing what they're doing, or lurking on aviation industry message boards. Perhaps learning about the interstate system, why it was built, and what happened to the communities it crossed (and those it didn't) would at least demystify it. Go to car shows, look at car reviews online, and read up on how to maintain and care for your vehicle so it all becomes more familiar to you.

Also, here's a long, detailed article from the New Yorker all about vehicle and highway safety and why people who are in tiny zip-around-town cars end up being safer drivers than those of larger, SUV-style cars.

One last tip - after a low-speed accident that bruised my forehead (no airbag + 1980s steering wheel + stopping really fast = bruise!) and totaled my car, I didn't drive for 8 months - but when I did, it was behind the wheel of a newer, nicer manual transmission car, and while I was totally sweating it out for the first few days, I felt much more control over the car than I had before and ended up being a much safer, much better driver; imagine the difference between steering and driving and you'll get what I'm talking about. In a recent auto-v-manual thread, the overwhelming number of responses urged the asker to get a manual.
posted by mdonley at 10:08 PM on June 17, 2007

Attend the Bondurant racing school, specifically the Highway Survival Training course.
posted by jamaro at 10:33 PM on June 17, 2007

Have you considered taking a few driving lessons again? Having a professional beside you talking you through things and giving you safety tips may help you regain confidence.
posted by Krrrlson at 10:34 PM on June 17, 2007

Or what jamaro said.
posted by Krrrlson at 10:35 PM on June 17, 2007

Whoops! This is the article I meant to link to; both are still good places to look for details on how cars are designed and built to protect you (or, at least, to get you to drive one off the lot).
posted by mdonley at 11:00 PM on June 17, 2007

Seconding the driving lessons. I had a friend who hadn't driven for years (on normal roads, not just motorways) because her husband's criticism had knocked her confidence. I put her in touch with a driving instructor friend, who took her out for a few lessons in his dual-control car, so she felt safe that he could take over if necessary.

They built up her confidence on local roads, then the A406 (almost a motorway), then the M11 (a friendly motorway) and finally the M25 (a horrible motorway). She drives everywhere now.
posted by essexjan at 11:32 PM on June 17, 2007

Sorry for piggybacking, but what's the difference between the Interstate and the highway? I've lived in a smaller city in the US my entire life and never known there was a distinction.
posted by pravit at 11:57 PM on June 17, 2007

I think that first you should get used to driving on the interstate without the onramps. There are certain places where you don't have to merge at all - the on ramp becomes an off ramp after about half a mile. Ask your interstate driving friends about where one of these exist locally. This is how I got 2 different non-interstate driving friends on. It also helps to have a friend to talk you through it. Just make one of these short trips a few times, then slowly ramp it up.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 12:22 AM on June 18, 2007

I was really scared of the freeway when I was learning to drive. Getting on is frightening; there is limited space before you have to merge, and if you screw up, well! best not to think about it.

But once I got the hang of it, I loved it. On a freeway you just sit in your lane and go the same speed. No stop signs or traffic lights, no pedestrians, no cross traffic, nice gentle curves, nice wide lanes - what could be easier! Freeways are what cars are made for.

When you are merging on, keep in mind that the other cars are as scared as you as you are of them. Ergo, they will give you the space you need. Accelerate to the traffic speed and signal a few seconds before you are ready to merge. If there is a car beside you, he will either speed up to get out of your way, or back off, in which case you can accelerate to slide in front of him. If he makes no move, you can slow down and go in behind him. If there is no room behind him, you can slow down some more until there is room.

The worst case is that you run out of real estate and have to come to a full stop on the on-ramp. I have never seen this happen in a situation where the freeway traffic isn't already stop-and-go. If it's stop-and-go, it's no problem, just wait for someone to let you in. If it's moving quickly, there will be plenty of space for you.

P.S. if your fear stems directly from an accident, it is the sort of thing a therapist can help you with. it is not irrational to be cautious on the freeway. but if you are careful it is quite safe, except for very rare occasions, most of which are beyond your control anyway. you know very well that driving on the interstate is a normal thing to do, something a lot of people do quite regularly. if you are unable to this because of your fear, by all means don't be shy about seeking help.
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:02 AM on June 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine (really!) had the same problem for years. He ended up seeing a therapist. The therapist thought that his anxiety was a learned response at this point and suggested a prescription for xanax for him to use temporarily to get him through it. The idea is that once he drives on the freeway a few times without anxiety he won't need the xanax anymore.

(Obviously if you do this you should make sure the xanax doesn't impair your driving ability.)
posted by Violet Hour at 1:10 AM on June 18, 2007

I don't think you should force yourself to drive on the interstate if you don't feel safe on it. From the way you phrase the question, it's not the interstate you're afraid of. You'll mooch rides with others (presumably on the interstate), but you don't feel that your own driving skills are up to the task of participating in a five-lane, 85 mile per hour free-for-all with SUVs and semi trucks. That doesn't seem irrational to me. It seems pretty sane. You've already been in a wreck and probably have a vivid understanding of your limits.

I know people who have never been in an accident but still don't feel comfortable driving on the interstate. There's nothing wrong with that; they don't need therapy. They're just not very good drivers. I don't see the interstate as dangerous but after fifteen years of driving I've come to view it as boring and souless and still something to be avoided when I can. The highways are a better experience and you shouldn't feel like you're somehow missing out by taking them instead.

The interstate highway system has only been around since the 1950s. I'm willing to bet that there's a huge, redundant network of alternate roads you could choose to use instead. I've lived on both coasts and in the midwest and nowhere have I found it actually necessary to drive on the interstate. It's usually just a matter of convenience.

But if you're intent on facing down your fear, I'd suggest building confidence by actually improving your driving skills rather than finding a way to medicate or rationalize away your discomfort. The driving lessons others have posted seem like a good first step.
posted by Jeff Howard at 1:19 AM on June 18, 2007

Some different ideas in addition to everyone else:
If you are able to make yourself drive on the interstate try practicing at time when there is almost no traffic (like later at night) and then when you can do that with only mild discomfort, try something a little harder until you work your way to up to full driving with only some discomfort. (The discomfort will then get better over time.)

Recognize that your feelings are a normal response to having had an accident. Notice them and accept them but add to the problem by worrying about them. After you finish driving, do some relaxation or meditation to clear your mind so you can let go of the feelings and they don't ruin your whole day.

A therapist can definitely help - if you don't want any drugs, you can do a exposure therapy that will directly help you deal with your fears.

This probably won't work at this stage but I know someone who would pretend that she was someone else while she was driving - a rich famous actress in a fabulous car who was so confident it wouldn't occur to her to worry.

Good luck! Don't let this prevent you from living your life the way that you want.
posted by metahawk at 2:15 AM on June 18, 2007

They built up her confidence on local roads, then the A406 (almost a motorway), then the M11 (a friendly motorway) and finally the M25 (a horrible motorway).

The funny thing is, the A406 is statistically, and literally, far worse than the M25 in terms of danger and general scariness (lots of bends, massive differences in speed between lanes, potential pedestrian activity) :)
posted by wackybrit at 2:43 AM on June 18, 2007

wackybrit: they drove the section from Edmonton to Redbridge, which is all 50mph and more like an urban motorway than other parts of the A406.
posted by essexjan at 3:59 AM on June 18, 2007

Mod note: a few comments removed, this is not "should I drive the speed limit" thread, please be constructive or take it to metatalk
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:53 AM on June 18, 2007

I also struggle with being deathly afraid of driving, and I have for more than a decade.

I live in a part of the United States without public transportation; I keep trying to master my fear because I don't want my life to get smaller by limiting where I can go without a real reason to do so. It's as simple as that.

Don't listen to people who say you shouldn't drive on the interstate if you don't want to! If you don't want to because (like me) you have a phobia, the only way around that is to expose yourself to the phobic situation and build up positive experiences to counteract your negative feelings. At some point, those experiences will allow you to decide rationally whether or not a given situation is dangerous, or simply scary.

It's working for me - I still go through periods where I would rather have teeth pulled without anesthetic, but the more I drive the more I want to. Good luck!
posted by deliriouscool at 7:34 AM on June 18, 2007

Hey, just last night I had a very very bad bout of driving terror. I too was in an auto wreck, in December: I was rolled twice down a ravine by a drunk driving 21 year old doing 105 in a rental car.

We got hit while making a five-hour trip, from our place of residence to our hometown, and we still have to make this same trip a lot. Riding shotgun, just as I was when the accident ocurred, is very, very scary for me. Sobbing terror. I visualize every possible way I could be killed or witness my partner killed and shriek if people cut us off or we brake a little suddenly.

I also feel like my fears are irrational but at the same time, justified. I feel like I hate this terror, but for now, agree with it, if that makes sense. It's certainly a problem. I do need to get place on the freeway.

I'm not sure how to solve the problem, but here are some ideas.

Therapy. It's post-traumatic stress disorder. I don't know what the therapist will do, but she's the expert on coping techniques, not you, and you should try talking to somebody knowledgable about it.

Rest. I think yesterday I had a harder time because I was the victim of physical stress: hardcore dieting, hangover, inadequate sleep, failure to take my precious stress-managing B-Vitamins. You can cope better when you're well.

Distraction. What I wound up trying last night, and liking a lot, was stopping and buying, mid-trip, an Audiobook. I learned with other anxiety experience that immersion in a narrative effects me almost like a drug. Helps me keep my mental wheels turning at a moderate speed, with a feeling of interested contentment.

Safety. Do anything you need to do to feel safe. Clean the windshield, adjust your seat and mirrors, Buy a car you feel is safe. Airbags, airbags, airbags. Having walked away from our accident hardly injured I am now a HUGE fan of: airbags in every conceivable place and VW in general. I bought the very same car we crashed because I know how it holds up in such a disaster. Part of my issue last night was that we're driving a borrowed car which has jerky feeling "sport" suspension and is... just not my car.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 8:49 AM on June 18, 2007

There are certain places where you don't have to merge at all - the on ramp becomes an off ramp after about half a mile.
This is a good idea in essence, but in practice going through a cloverleaf like this will just confuse the traffic around you (they will think that you're about to merge without signaling and will probably be rather annoyed). It's better to find a ramp that becomes a normal lane all on it's own--where the road adds a lane. This way you can get on and just hang out in that lane, enjoying the glory of no pedestrians, stop lights, etc.

Also it's important to remember that on most interstates, you are NOT stuck if you run out of merge lane, and that in fact there is often a nice, paved shoulder which is often wider then a normal lane. You shouldn't drive on the shoulder for fun (for one thing, there's often a lot of junk, which is potentially very bad for your tires) but there's also not a sheer cliff waiting if you can't find a safe spot to merge*. With that in mind, DON'T SLOW DOWN. It's easier to merge if you're going at the same speed or slightly faster, and you are merging in to the slowest lane of traffic. DO put your signal on, right away when you get to the top of the ramp--people know you're merging in any case but it doesn't hurt to remind them.
*You will find a spot anyway, but it's nice to have a safety line.

Ask your friends which is the "nicest" highway. Heck, post back with your location and ask us. :)

Learning a little bit about how the highway in your area works will also make you more comfortable with random driving. Just by looking at the signs you should be able to know where you are now, how far it is until you need to exit, and which direction you'll take when you do exit. In Virginia and Tennessee, for instance, exits are all numbered according to the mile markers. If you're passing exit 53 and your exit is 50A, you have 3 miles to go. Assuming you're going 60 mph, that means you have about 3 minutes left on the highway. Exits are also lettered in the order you get to them IF you're going from little-number exit to larger-number exit...if you're going down the exits, like in this example, then it's reversed, so 50A will come after 50B and before 49B.
posted by anaelith at 9:06 AM on June 18, 2007

This previous thread contains a lot of advice about developing driving skills.

I second the suggestion to try it out at night when traffic levels are low. Also, you might see if there are notoriously badly-designed merge areas near you so you can avoid them. Every city seems to have some of these - where the on ramp and offramp are too close together, so there are dangerous merges in both directions, and the curves of the ramp are too severe so people must slow from highway speed to 20mph while doing their merges etc.

In most areas, once you're actually on a large highway/interstate it is safer because drivers don't have to make many changes or decisions. You can just stay in the middle or right (slowest) lane, going the speed limit, and as long as you are going a constant speed and staying in one lane, you can more or less ignore everybody except the guy in front of you. You want to keep a nice distance from him so you can brake if he slows or stops. Other people will pass you if they want to, that's fine and you don't need to do anything except maintain your speed and don't make any sudden changes. If you're in the left lanes you need to be more attentive as there will be more changes, and you may be called on to switch lanes more, so you need to pay more attention to who's behind and beside you. (If cars are merging in from the right, you may also need to change lanes -- but you will have some warning that they're coming, so you can check out the lane next to you in the mirror and with a quick glance in case there's someone in your blind spot.) This is easier at night too - since people will have their headlights on, it is easier to see who's coming up in the lane next to you as their headlights appear on the pavement next to you.

Other tips: don't cruise in someone's blind spots. (google "car blind spot" for more detail) Don't brake suddenly unless there is a real emergency -- going from 65 to 60 is ok, but going from 60 to 40 suddenly may not give the person behind you enough time to brake, so don't do this unless you really need to. If you are paying some attention to the lanes next to you and just behind, you'll be able to decide whether to steer around an obstacle (eg a piece of shredded truck tire) or brake.

As to the difference between interstates and highways: the difference is in the funding - interstates are funded federally with a pool of money shared among the states. Some but not all highways are interstates. All interstates are highways. Interstates have to meet a specific set of requirements, so they have several common characteristics. Many interstates (though not all) literally go between states -- ie, usually longer distances. They will often be larger - more lanes - than other highways; their speed limits are higher; the access to them is different. In many states there are small highways (state routes) that have only a single lane of traffic in each direction, and the directions of travel may only be separated by a double yellow line rather than a physical barrier. Speeds are lower and merging is less complicated on these smaller roads. Such roads may have traffic lights where they come through a town -- interstates do not have traffic lights, they are what's known as "controlled access" highways where the only way to get on or off is by dedicated entrance or exit ramps. (Some highways other than interstates are also "controlled access" roads). Pedestrians, horses, etc are not allowed on interstates. In general, the controlled access and the long stretches without needing to change lanes are exactly what make interstates safer - fewer driver decisions, fewer unexpected things in the road.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:38 AM on June 18, 2007

Also, cars built today are much, much safer than cars built even 15 years ago. Even small cars today have safety stuff built in. Look into this if it's the kind of thing likely to make headway against the fear. If you are buckled in, driving/riding in a modern car, you are actually amazingly safe.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:41 AM on June 18, 2007

Also, Cruise Control. Do you have it? Love it? Hate it? I personally love it. I set it to 65, hang out in the slow lane and feel like I have more attention to give to my visual interaction with traffic with my acceleration foot in temporary retirement.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:42 AM on June 18, 2007

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