Help me conquer my fear of driving
October 12, 2007 1:56 PM   Subscribe

I need to learn to drive, but the idea scares the crap out of me.

So for the past 20-odd years I've been avoiding learning to drive. I know the benefits and I know the process of learning. But the idea of getting behind the wheel of a 1-ton piece of metal and sending it careening down the street at high speed scares me. I am usually okay as a passenger, but the idea of being in control isn't something I am comfortable with. So, what are your suggestions for helping me overcome my fears and learning to drive without driving myself mad? I'm in the Boston area if you have specific suggestions for schools, etc.
posted by anonymous to Travel & Transportation (33 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
First, involve yourself more actively while you are being driven
from place to place. By this I mean while you are a passenger,
pretend like you are driving. This means doing all the things
that the Massachusetts DMV handbook would have you do.
Pretend like you are in control. This might help desensitize you
a little. Other people will make it look easier to you.

You should probably learn to drive with an automatic
transmission, rather than a manual transmission. I understand
that the automatic is the norm these days, so this probably
won't be a problem.
posted by the Real Dan at 2:03 PM on October 12, 2007

I am an adult non-driver as well. I forced myself a couple of years ago to sign up for driving courses. On my very first class, the instructor had me out on the road. Did it scare the bejeezus out of me? Yes. Did I manage to do it? Yes! It was quite honestly only about a quarter as scary as I pictured it. And on subsequent classes, it got less scary. In my experience, taking a class with an instructor, who is a neutral party and trained in keeping his or her cool, was a great way to go. And for me, jumping right in was the only way to work on getting over my phobia (because I really do consider it as such).
posted by DrGirlfriend at 2:06 PM on October 12, 2007

I am a highly anxious driver. Right after I got my license , I hit a parked car while pulling into a parking space. This launched me into full-fledged phobia mode, though I did need to continue driving on a daily basis. A few years later, a car made an illegal left and I drove into it. Both minor accidents--the first sent me into the panic, and the second actually helped resolve it (sort of the flower-pot on the head deal.) It's something that has somewhat resolved itself; I wouldn't call it a phobia, though I remain highly anxious (both as driver and passenger) and am probably overly careful and defensive as a result.

I still don't drive in the city (DC). I am a passenger, or I take Metro.

However, overall, I love to drive. Especially on highways. My job had me driving sometimes 300 miles plus on certain days over the summer. What helped me the most was the commute between my college and my house; my home in DC and my parents' home -- some much, much busier than others (The Beltway, the NJ Turnpike between exits 4 and 7a, where I get off). Long stretches of highway that allow you to just get into the "zone" of driving, listening to music.

I'd recommend doing this, if you can: once you learn how to drive, find a point that involves a long stretch, and just let your body get into the muscle memory of the act. It ends up being immensely relaxing, sort of its own Zen.

Good luck!
posted by atayah at 2:08 PM on October 12, 2007

One idea, if you're scared of careening down the street at high speed, is to start really slowly (literally). Get a friend or instructor to take you to a big parking lot, at whatever hours the lot is empty. This means: no street. Then: crawl around the parking lot. Not literally, but go as slowly as you need to in order to feel comfortable. So: no speeding.
Take your time. Work up to it. You can do it! Good luck.
posted by bassjump at 2:09 PM on October 12, 2007

I've often thought of that myself. It is a pretty dangerous activity to engage in, as far as activities go. Certainly more dangerous than reading metafilter.

Usually what makes me feel better is the ratio of people that drive everywhere, every day and are completely fine. I don't really know many people who have been in terrible accidents.

Similarly, every time I drive, especially after a long trip (4+hours or so) I feel more confident in my skills and less likely to get nervous the next time I drive.

Just drive defensively and you'll be fine.
posted by kpmcguire at 2:11 PM on October 12, 2007

My mom is a driving instructor, and she generally makes people practice in the parking lot until they have really, really good control of the car at slow speeds: making an excellent right or left turn, stopping, reversing, etc. Knowing that you have great control over the car might make it easier to go "careening down the street at high speeds."
posted by needs more cowbell at 2:19 PM on October 12, 2007

I would like to second what The Real Dan says about being an active passenger. Honestly, the very worst drivers I ever have known were the ones who took a mental vacation while they were being ferried around. When you begin to have a clue about watching for situations and behaving defensively from the safe viewpoint of being a passenger, you will become a more confident driver faster. I truly believe this.
posted by contessa at 2:59 PM on October 12, 2007

I have been in your position, and I understand the fear. One way I was able to get myself used to driving was by practicing in a big cemetery. It felt more like a "road" than the parking lot did, and there was rarely anyone around.
posted by Shebear at 3:14 PM on October 12, 2007

Seconding atayah - I had a fender-bender driving an automatic after I got my license that made me so afraid of driving that I didn't for 8 months, but I lived an 8-hour drive from home in college. Eventually, after re-learning to drive on a manual transmission at the insistence of a family member, I got to the point where I would go home on random stressful weekends (back in the days of $1.50 a gallon gas...) and the physical act of the driving was so relaxing that it was almost like yoga, in a very doing-something-but-not-doing-something kind of way. City driving is often chaotic, especially with a manual, but the open road at 3 in the morning is like nothing else out there, really. It sounds crazy, I know, but driving helped me get over my fear of driving.
posted by mdonley at 3:26 PM on October 12, 2007

I learned to drive late, largely because of the kind of worry that you mention (not as strong as your, probably). Also, Boston drivers are very aggressive and scary, IME - this might be making it harder for you than it otherwise would be. See if you can take lessons somewhere outside of the city, where you can drive at speed without worrying about psycho lane-changers.

The things that were scariest for me at first mainly involved driving at speed, at 20-40 mph in residential or commercial areas. Driving faster, as on the highway, isn't as scary once you do it a couple of times, because the traffic is much more predictable (once you're outside Boston, that is).

Start with practicing in an empty parking lot, always going under 10 mph. Practice lining the car up with a parking space, from straight on, from the right, from the left, in reverse. Remember that parking spaces are much narrower than lanes of travel on roads - so it's harder to line up to park than it is to stay in your lane on a road. Do this a little, but don't be freaked out by it. Parking lots are in many ways tighter environments than roads, so you can spook yourself by practicing too much there. Once you have reasonable control over the car, find a very quiet residential neighborhood without much traffic, and with frequent stop signs -- drive around and around the same few blocks, practice turning, keeping the car in the middle of your lane, and accelerating to 20 mph and then stopping smoothly.

This much you should be able to do with a patient friend, until you have the very basic hang of moving the car around, and you're confident that you can get up to speed, steer, and stop in appropriate ways to avoid an accident (which you WILL be able to do. It just takes a bit of practice, and then you WILL be good enough at controlling the car).

Remember that in almost all situations when you're moving forward, you only need to pay attention to what's in front of you - don't get hung up on trying to pay attention to the cars behind you, for now. They can take care of themselves. (Obvs not true when you're reversing!) Always signal, and then other drivers will be able to anticipate your actions and prevent an accident if you're doing something very dumb. You will make a few dumb mistakes at first; this is okay and you shouldn't beat yourself up. You'll be in low-speed situations.

Once you have the basic hang of moving the car, I would take lessons with a pro.

I found it very useful to have lessons with a pro, who would calmly tell me what to do in each situation, in a calm and confident muttering monologue ("ok, gentle gas, gentle gas, gentle brake, gentle brake, stop. Ok, safe to go, give it some gas, let's really speed up here, put on your signal, look for an opening, ok now merge in to the left lane, good, keep up the gas and hold it at 65 mph").

Drive with your headlights on even during the day, this helps other people to see you. Other drivers really will steer out of your way most of the time if you're doing something stupid, so the driving environment has a bit more forgiveness to it than one initially imagines.

You might try driving at night, when there are fewer people out and cars are easy to identify because they have headlights on. Driving at midnight was how I practiced driving at speed, the first few times.

You can get over the fear, and get to a point where it's just reasonable caution - driving at reasonabel speeds, in a way that's predictable to other drivers, and keeping your cool when unexpected things happen on the road. Remember that the road environment is designed to help you get it right, and that most other drivers are also trying to avoid hitting anything. Have faith in yourself, that you can develop good physical instincts which will help keep you safe.

Some related threads:
fear of driving
fear of the interstate
city driving
quickly learning to drive
quickly learning to drive, again
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:26 PM on October 12, 2007 [3 favorites]

The good news is, if you can drive in Boston, you can drive anywhere....

When I learned to drive, I started in an empty church parking lot with my mom while I got used to the feel of driving, the pressure required on the accelerator and brake, and so on. I moved up to suburban neighborhood streets, then major streets between towns, and then up to highway driving. Going slowly like that is nice -- find a driver friend who will help you do this; don't let you first experience be on a busy road.

Moving from nice grid-pattern polite Ohio to crazy-ass poor-signage Boston, I learned to expect the worst ("I bet that taxi will cut me off. Yep, there he goes.") and handle poor navigation ("Shit, there was my turn. Oh well, I will calmly look for another way to get there.") Learning these two things, though, took me a lot of freaking out and cursing. Knowing the city well, staring at maps to get a sense of layout, and making sure I have time to screw up on my way to something helped with the latter; pure experience helped with the former.

Good luck! You'll be fine! Driving is awesome!
posted by olinerd at 3:27 PM on October 12, 2007

Oh, and to practice, head out to an office park complex on a Sunday afternoon - usually nobody around and there are relatively narrow streets so it doesn't feel as intimidating. Do be aware that companies might not be thrilled to have you in their parking lots, though, so try to go somewhere with public streets. I learned to drive manual here.
posted by mdonley at 3:31 PM on October 12, 2007

The first time I tried driving I ended up on the neighbor's lawn (I was so nervous that I forgot when you turn the steering wheel to turn, you have to turn it back to regular position), so I waited a while before getting my license. Then when I moved to San Francisco, I stopped driving and let it expire, and I just got one again. During the periods I don't drive I'm the same way as far as fearing it; but once I get on the road and start to gain confidence that, yes, the car is going to respond to what I do with the pedals and steering wheel, and it's not going to kill somebody to pass me on the road if I'm going too slow, etc. I think you'll be surprised how quickly you start to feel comfortable with it. As many mention, practice in parking lots and light-traffic roads first...
posted by troybob at 3:37 PM on October 12, 2007

i didn't drive for 6 years while i lived in new york, and was very nervous about resuming daily driving when i moved away.

i stayed in the right lane, drove the speed limit, and ignored people tailgating or honking if i took too long to make a turn.

i second (third? fourth?) practicing in a large parking lot. go to a mall early on a sunday, or somewhere else with a large parking lot. after you're comfortable with that, drive around the block. then get used to side streets. then work up to main streets. finally, get on the highway.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:59 PM on October 12, 2007

YMMV, but when it comes to facing my own fears there is one thing I've found to be true, and so I always pass this on to other people... if you do anything enough, it becomes normal to you. The key is getting yourself from A to B. And being patient with yourself because comfort doesn't develop overnight.

It's newness/foreignness, fear of the unknown and need to have control that fuels most fears. Once things become part of a routine, those particular traits tend to fade. That's how I got over my stage fright, which was paralyzing. The first time I had to get onstage in front of people for a whole show, I had no idea what to expect and was terrified. I created some odd little pre-show (and during the show) rituals to give myself a sense of comfort and control. I barely made it through the night, but I pretended I was okay throughout and when it was over I was really proud of myself and relieved it was done. People were really nice to me and that made it easier.

The second time I did the same little rituals, and same with the third and fourth. By the time I did my tenth show, I found myself not needing any rituals because over time the show itself and every up and down with my musicians from beginning to end had a sense of familiar, comfortable routine. And now? Now I don't remember what life was like when it was scary. I worked so hard to learn to do it, and it became such a comforting ritual for me that I feel like a part of me is missing when I stop performing for a while.

Likewise, you might just end up enjoying driving. In time. You'd be surprised.
posted by miss lynnster at 4:33 PM on October 12, 2007

(I didn't give actual driving advice 'cuz I think people have pretty much covered that already.)
posted by miss lynnster at 4:37 PM on October 12, 2007

Other drivers really will steer out of your way most of the time if you're doing something stupid...

This is especially true in metro Boston, and it's the one positive of learning to drive around here. Most other drivers are conditioned to expect the unexpected, so mistakes that might cause accidents or angry horn-honking in other cities are driven around and ignored. If you can stay calm, even big errors (i.e., going the wrong way down a one-way street, into traffic, not that I've ever done that ahem) can be worked out with minimal drama.
posted by backupjesus at 4:38 PM on October 12, 2007

Get yourself a GPS navigation system -- that will allow you to avoid the stress of actually figuring out where you are and how to get where you're going on top of the second-by-second bits of driving. I sure wish I'd had one when I was new at driving. The refurbed Magellan 2200T at $180 is a great deal on a fine nav unit, one of the few at that price point that uses speech synthesis to announce the actual name of the street or exit you are supposed to take next. (Most cheap ones just say "Turn right in 500 feet" rather than "Turn right on Elm Street.")
posted by kindall at 5:09 PM on October 12, 2007

Oh, you're going to be driving in Boston? Then I double, nay, triple, my recommendation that you get a navigation device post haste.
posted by kindall at 5:10 PM on October 12, 2007

Start slow, but don't stop as soon as things get tough. Real confidence can only come from practice and experience getting yourself from one place to the other. (Or, in the case of teenagers, stupidity). Start in a safer environment such as a smaller town, or the country and keep going until you feel like you've made real progress.

I had a terrible time teaching my s.o. to drive standard. He's a reluctant and timid driver. He would take baby steps and announce that he was done for the day. Driving stick began to seem harder to him than it should have. In the end he had to teach himself driving on the left in a foriegn country. He did brilliantly, but I hated to watch all the angst.

I wonder if maybe a driving simulator might be a good place to start? I hope you enjoy it. It can be a lot of fun, if you don't need to do it every day.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 6:28 PM on October 12, 2007

Also, learning the boundaries of your car.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:31 PM on October 12, 2007

I didn't get my license until I was 20 (Not because I didn't want it, but because I didn't have the opportunity overseas at a military base). My best advice is to have someone drive you out to an abandoned parking lot sometime in the evening and then just getting behind the wheel.

It's really easy to get a hang of the gas if start off slowly -- the most common mistake is to pound on the pedal, which will send you flying.
posted by Aanidaani at 6:41 PM on October 12, 2007

I am 27, a native New Yorker, unlicensed, without ever having had a lesson, and afraid to drive. Keeping an eye on this.
posted by cmgonzalez at 8:44 PM on October 12, 2007

I'm with you - I've had my license for years, but I don't drive much - I live in Boston and don't own a car, and I'm kind of freaked out by the speed and capacity for damage.

I just recently signed up for Zipcar and have been driving in the city. It's true what people say above - the more you do it, the more you grow accustomed to it, and the better your safety reactions get.

It helps me to remember that there are tons of people out there doing it every day, even people totally new to this area or even the country.

When I get freaked out, I just tell myself "I'm going from Point A to Point B, over and over again." I'm just going to the end of this street. Then I'm going to the next intersection. Then I'm going to the end of that street. It really helps my brain to chunk the trips into smaller bits that I can handle safely instead of thinking of a huge trip where I might screw up because it's so long and fraught with danger.

Other things that help: Take small trips at first, for purposes that will make you feel good for having done them (like picking up something heavy that you wouldn't have been able to get without driving). Try driving at really late hours to help familiarize you with the streets (especially the one-way roads!). Map out your routes thoroughly before driving - then the trip becomes just a checklist of landmarks you already anticipate.
posted by cadge at 9:32 PM on October 12, 2007

Just popping back in to re-emphasize: It really is something you can do. It's a complex skill that takes practice, but so are bike riding, swimming, managing your money, cooking over an open flame, and so on. Don't let yourself get freaked out by the "OMG tons of steel, terrible consequences if I screw up" feeling. That stuff is true, but you do plenty of complex physical tasks every day, some of which have bad consequences if you screw up -- and with practice, you learn how to do them just fine.

It's good to have a healthy sense of caution when you're driving. It's bad to think "I could never do it. All these other people who drive are either superhuman or just not aware of the risks". Baloney. Imagine if someone said that about cooking with a gas burner -- you'd think they were wrong. Accidents happen, but you have to have a sense of proportion about the risks -- if you're cautious and spend time learning the skills, it is mostly fine.

(I say this assuming that you're not a person with a crippling general anxiety, impulsivity, sensory processing, or rage problem. There are some people who are not going to be safe drivers. But most people I know who have been concerned about it turn out to be perfectly fine drivers once they get over the "it's so dangerous I could never do it" block, and get some practice.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:38 PM on October 12, 2007

And there are a few nice tips in this thread about how to get over a phobia, including a few about driving.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:50 PM on October 12, 2007

It is definitely a matter of practice, practice, can't beat experience...

With experience you:

Learn to anticipate people cutting you up, crossing the road etc and by anticipating these things you automatically work out your strategy out of the situation...

You get to know your car and how it handles in different situations so that also makes you more comfortable.

You stop perceiving the speed you normally travel at as dangerous...if you mainly drive in built up areas you may perceive driving on motorways as more dangerous even after years of driving...

If on the other hand you spend most of your time on motorways you stop to consider these higher speeds as more dangerous...but you may get freaked out by busy city centres with pedestrians/cyclists randomly crossing the road or other drivers making unexpected manouvers...

You get used to driving styles...if people where you are are agressive drivers you get used to that...

You also find that the 'rules' change with the time of day you're out and about - different proportions of male/female drivers and of different vehicles with or without passengers all affects how people drive...

And until you are experienced yourself just remember that eperienced drivers can normally tell if you are scared/don't know your way etc. as your drving will be different from what qualifies as 'normal' on that particular is in their own interest to make allowances for you and hopefully they will :)
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:17 AM on October 13, 2007

Please don't get a GPS. That was a terrible suggestion.

Becoming an active passenger will help you much more. That was a great suggestion.
posted by jstef at 7:12 AM on October 13, 2007

I had a lot of driving fear too, and here's how I worked through it:

1. Driving (with a friend/family member) in cemeteries. Same general principle as driving in a parking lot, except there are actual roads. And most anyone you can hit is already dead. This strategy helped me more than practicing in a parking lot because I had a better sense for how close the road edges were.

2. Driving lessons, once I'd mastered cemeteries. My first lesson was with the wrong type of instructor for me, and I'm still proud of the fact that I made him stop the lesson and let me out of the car the minute I realized it. Take the time to find an instructor with the right personality! For me that meant a young, laid-back, non-authoritative type.

3. Practicing at night. I live in a congested area, so by practicing at night, I could change lanes with less anxiety because there were fewer cars around.

Additionally, I talked about my fears whenever they came up, and was relieved to find that many experienced and competent drivers share them! I'm not the only person who thinks she's going to hit the concrete highway median or drive off of the narrow bridge.
posted by xo at 7:49 AM on October 13, 2007

I was formerly in your position (though not for nearly as long) and a few things helped me toward getting a license and driving. Like you I was afraid of directing a massive hunk of aluminum and steel hurling down the highway at sixty-five miles per hour and overwhelmed by the idea of driving after so long avoiding it. I thought "Why not take the driving test outside of Boston because driving in the suburbs will be easier?" and subsequently was failed multiple times by a near-retirement aged state trooper who clearly felt his prerogative was to impress upon young people the reality that they won't be driving around listening to their rock music, smokin' reefer, and endangering the lives of good citizens without fearing his perpetual presence. Ultimately a friend told me to check out Brookline Driving School, whom I contacted and took a few lessons with. The instructor, a Russian immigrant with incalculable years of experience driving in Boston, quickly stripped away my fears of driving in such a hostile environment and essentially made a good defensive driver of me in a couple of weeks. Today, I drive an ambulance in Boston with confidence and relative ease (one always has to be cognizant of the idiocy and aggression of Boston drivers), but I think I owe quite a bit to the instructor at Brookline Driving School. So please, do yourself a favor and check them out.

Incidentally, I should mention that if you arrange to take the driving test through BDS, you will be asked to show up at Brookline High School early on a Saturday morning along with twenty plus high school kids from the area, you will get into a car with four other people, make two right turns, park and likely walk away with your license. You pay a premium to take the test with them but you are much more likely to pass and, to be honest, driving skill mostly comes from driving a lot: something you can't exactly do without a license. Good luck! It's easier than you think and driving is sometimes actually quite fun!
posted by inoculatedcities at 9:53 AM on October 13, 2007

I'm so phobic about driving that you've already been referred to my thread on the subject. So I think I'm maybe qualified to give you some advice. I grew up in Southern CA where when you don't get your license before you're 17, people assume you have some sort of developmental disability. I got mine at 20, mostly because I had heard that people have trouble buying alcohol with a CA state ID since realistically, why would you not just have a license. This is the mindset.

So, as you already know, I have had parking issues. And I have to side with the people here who say practice is all you can do; I had parking problems because my old car was so damn easy to park that I never really gave the mechanics of the situation much thought, and it was hard to learn from my mistakes because they seemed both rare and unrelated. Now, I'm driving a wider car with an inferior turn radius and I live in a place with a narrow parking lot and hilariously small spaces. I am better at parking this car than most of the people who have driven it, because I have had to do it more. And that's the only reason.

I have a few other helpful hints for you which may or may not actually help YOU:
-if you can, try to find a driving instructor who has worked with racecar drivers or long-haul truckers. I learned from a racing instructor who had nerves of motherfucking titanium. Picture this: me, hurtling toward the wall of a freeway, looking in the wrong direction. What does my instructor say (NOT yell), about ten feet from the wall, going 65? "Hey, look that way." You'll be calmer if your passenger isn't acting like he's about to lose his shit.
-it might be helpful for you to get your license ASAP and then practice more once you have it. Maybe you could even engage an instructor to help teach you more without the pressure of a test looming. I find driving alone to be about a tenth of the stress of driving with passengers. There are less demands on your attention, and if you do something dumb you're the only one yelling. I still avoid driving with passengers whenever I can, because they make me nervous, I screw up, and they start calling me a bad driver, which makes me even more disinclined to drive.
-this may backfire, but I've found it weirdly comforting to drive with single men in their early 20s. As a rule (and there are many wonderful exceptions) they are reckless, aggressive, and irresponsible on the road. And yet despite the fact that they are shitty, stupid drivers, breaking all the rules that you know are safer to follow, they are not only driving all the time but LOVING IT. The driving world is a world that accommodates and even enriches these little shits. How could it not love your sedate, cautious, law-abiding presence? On the other hand, I readily admit that it is fucking scary to think that there are all these hilariously bad drivers on the road.

Best of luck. Email's in my profile (I feel we have become the AskMe poster children for driving fears and thus some gesture of solidarity is in order).
posted by crinklebat at 8:52 PM on October 14, 2007

Look at how many people have favorited this thread, suggesting they want to come back to it in the future. You're far from alone in this fear.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:04 PM on October 14, 2007

Try some driving video games. Not the ones where you're supposed to smash things up. Most race games have a basic oval track you can practice with, and they're fairly faithful driving sims. Pick a low-end non-superfast car and just practice going around the track, reversing and going forward. It gives you a sense of control without the crash-factor.

Driving schools usually have cars where the instructor has a brake. They're not too expensive, especially if this is a quality of life thing. Remeber the car is a tool. It's not trying to kill you. Just respect it and it will treat you well. And if you're ever in Waltham, look me up. (Act fast, though... I'm about to get rid of my automatic transmission vehicle in favor of something with a stick-shift. E-mail's in profile!)
posted by Eideteker at 7:28 PM on November 19, 2007

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