How to overcome fear of driving
January 24, 2008 10:12 AM   Subscribe

How do you get over being paranoid about driving?

Ok, so let me give a bit of background information. i'm female, and i got my driving license 4 yrs back. ever since the day i got the license i have never driven. Why? well it's a combination of several things. but the main fact is that i instantly panic and stress out when i hit the main road. it's like a zillion thoughts go through my mind such 'oh man, you're going to knock someone down, crash the car', the most goriest details possible. i get all sweaty and and feel like i need to run from the car immediately.

i tried brush up lessons; i was asked by the learner, why i was so afraid of driving, that she had never seen anyone like me before;no it isnt something to be proud of. did a few brush up lessons and gave up.

over the past few months i've been trying to start again. hasnt worked yet *sigh. i just want to know, is such feelings common and how do you overcome it?

note : the only time i ever was comfortable driving a car was when it was automatic and not manual;i'm not sure if there is something important in there or not
posted by geminus to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I have exactly the same problem as you, only I never even got my license. I have my learner's permit but I have not done much learning. I'm 20, and I thought it would get better as I got older but it hasn't. I will be watching this for advice. Just know that you're not alone.
posted by d13t_p3ps1 at 10:18 AM on January 24, 2008

This is not uncommon, especially your note about automatic vs. manual. With manual transmissions you run the risk of ruining the transmission if you're not paying attention, and if you're not used to driving, there's a lot to pay attention to. I just recently started driving again after a 10 year lapse, so I can sympathise.

I don't think there is a silver bullet for getting past this, but you do need to practice as much as possible, at first on backroads with little traffic (or big parking lots). Do this alone - nothing is worse than your boyfriend/mother/whoever yelling "Oh my God!" and adding to your stress.

Also, make sure you're as comfortable as possible. Can you see out of all your mirrors? (I'm short and need something to sit on.) Does everything in the car work properly (no weird noises, the heat works)? Do you have good tires that are weather-appropriate? I personally feel safer in a pickup truck because I'm up high, but that's not what I drive daily.

It's possible you have a genuine phobia or another anxiety disorder (I myself have panic disorder). A counselor may be able to help you in the same way they help people who are afraid to fly.
posted by desjardins at 10:21 AM on January 24, 2008

You're showing what's called anticipatory anxiety, which is part of a phobic response. Luckily, phobias are among the most treatable mental disorders. I would strongly suggest some sessions of exposure/behavioral therapy with a licensed psychologist. It isn't uncommon to be cured of a phobia after only a handful of sessions with someone who has had experience treating phobias. Good luck!
posted by mamessner at 10:26 AM on January 24, 2008

I don't think it's all that uncommon. I was nervous about driving for the first few months after I learned--I actually didn't want to get my license at 16, but my mom made me, because she didn't want to drive me around anymore. My sister took driver's ed at the age of 16, but didn't get her license until she was 18, because she was too nervous to take the test (not because she was afraid of failing, but because she was afraid of having to drive after getting her license). You're certainly not the only one who is hesitant to get behind the wheel of a big, heavy machine.

I don't know how to get over it, other than just doing it. Find an empty parking lot to practice in, and then back streets, and work your way up to busier streets, and then the highway. Try to get comfortable on an automatic before you learn how to drive a standard--that's a whole additional level of stress that you don't need if you're already nervous. Good luck!
posted by donajo at 10:34 AM on January 24, 2008

Do you get stressed out playing driving games? Maybe that could help you get more comfortable with the mechanics of driving if you aren't even able to get in a real car.

I know many people in the states can't drive a stick at all and can only drive automatics. If that makes you the most comfortable, start there, no shame in not being able to drive a stick.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 10:35 AM on January 24, 2008

My friend went through this when she first got her license a few years ago. Her parents signed her up for some sessions with this new-agey driving therapist. If you're in the Los Angeles area, you can go to him, or you can order some of his driving therapy CDs. (Link.)

I think my friend found the whole experience to be more than a little ridiculous. She's a lot more comfortable driving now, but I'm not sure whether she'd attribute it to sessions with Sy Cohn, M.A., M.F.T., or just to driving more and getting comfortable behind the wheel.
posted by seldomfun at 10:41 AM on January 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

My wife only got her license less than a year ago(she's 23) because she was too afraid of driving. What worked for her was to practice in less busy areas until she got comfortable with operating the car. It took a long time before she felt like she knew the car well enough to go on a large road, and literally months before she would drive on a highway(exception: we took a road trip that involved a stretch of about 200 miles on a mostly deserted divided 4-lane highway). I think what finally got her over the highway driving was ending up in a position where the inconvenience of avoiding the highway finally outweighed the fear.

She still prefers me to drive, but can get around on her own when necessary. Our best couple-friends are in a similar position, too - the wife, 25, has just enrolled in driver's education classes with the goal of getting her license.
posted by owtytrof at 10:46 AM on January 24, 2008

I used to feel very nervous when I started driving. I had to keep telling myself how few accidents actually happen, percentage wise. I still am amazed how little I see any accidents as I drive to and from work each day. Think of it this way: How many people are on the road that are way more reckless than you and are still driving without any problems?

You really need more experience, like desjardins and donajo said.
posted by demiurge at 10:48 AM on January 24, 2008

You could also get a little scooter, to get used to the idea of motoring along busy streets. Then you could move up to a car.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 10:52 AM on January 24, 2008

Best answer: All the advice re: practice, practice, practice is definitely good. I'll just add that I believe my driving comfort was due not only to the large amount of driving I did (I had to commute from my small town to a large city four times per week the moment I got my license), but also from riding shotgun with superior drivers. It was mostly luck that I found a couple of people in particular who were exceptionally skilled on the roads, but I definitely learned a lot from just watching. I took note of how fast they could go into turns, how they accelerated out of turns (somewhat counter-intuitive but very effective), how they changed lanes, &c.

Also, it will help you immensely (I think) to become very familiar with the size of your car. It seems fairly common to over-estimate the width of ones vehicle, which will give you endless amounts of anxiety as you try and navigate narrow roads or dense traffic. Proper positioning of your mirrors will help, but ultimately you'll just have to get out there and practice parking and navigating tight spots to get your perspective adjusted.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 10:57 AM on January 24, 2008

I've developed this to an extent.

I learned to drive at 16, started driving regularly at 18, drove all the time until age 24 - with no problems. Then I moved and had no car. Off and on I'd rent a car, and owned one briefly, but for the past 8 years I haven't had a car.

Now that I rarely drive, I'm way paranoid when I do drive. After I've been driving for a while (20 minutes or so) it wears off. But I don't even like to think about having to drive.

So for me I think it's what I get used to. I'm sure if I bought a car I'd get over this in a couple weeks. So my advice would be to just get in and get some practice, by yourself, in a familiar area.

BTW, I think it's perfectly natural to feel this way a little, especially as an adult. Driving is probably the riskiest activity most any of us ever do... and certainly the riskiest thing we do regularly.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 11:29 AM on January 24, 2008

This might be out of left field, but I too have anxiety about driving. I attribute it partially to the fact that I'm very short, and I think my car is the wrong size for me (although it is a pretty small car, I still can't see the bottom of the windshield when I drive, and I pull the seat up all the way.) If this is part of your problem, a cushion to sit on so that you can see better might help. When I learned how to drive, the drivers-ed instructor had cushions for the shorter drivers, and I don't remember feeling quite as anxious when I could see what was going on in front of and around me. It's about time for me to purchase some cushions of my own for the car, but with my boyfriend happy to drive everywhere and my anxiety about it, that just hasn't happened.
Experience and understanding the size of your car can really help, as Banky_Edwards (and many others on the experience front) have said.
posted by k8lin at 11:38 AM on January 24, 2008

Interesting reading this. I am more paranoid when someone else is driving. I think it is a loss of control. I don't like to fly either when I am not the pilot. I am not a pilot. Sounds like you don't want the responsibility if anything goes wrong. I agree with fortytwo backwards that at the point where the inconvenience of not driving outweighs the fear, you will do fine.

I would go to a defensive driving course where you work on a skid pad, practice making drastic stops, etc. A lot of racetracks have these types of courses for everyday driving.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:40 AM on January 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Driving used to be incredibly daunting to me - The local driver's ed school charges $80 an hour for lessons, and spending an entire hour behind the wheel, driving aimlessly around town, was insanely painful. Turns out that aimless driving practice is entirely the WRONG approach. Think of it this way, how often do Real Drivers spend a full hour looping around town? That's not what driving is about.

The CORRECT approach is to first get comfortable driving around residential streets during hours that people are unlikely to be on the took me about 45 minutes of doing that (and choosing which directions I want to go - something the driving instructor did not allow me to do) to get a feel for how the car moves. I still didn't have any real confidence in myself... Seriously, I am the most reluctant driver ever, I've been known to cry at the thought of it. But once I started seeing myself improve, I made it a point to practice doing SHORT TRIPS. Drive from your house to the movie theater/office/grocery store and then back again every day and you'll realize that, yeah, driving might be unpleasant, but just because you're a driver doesn't mean you have to spend hours in the car every day. It should not be enough to overwhelm you.
posted by lizzicide at 11:41 AM on January 24, 2008

Seconding lizzicide's response, if you haven't already taken an answer from this thread. Actually driving on those same roads, but at a time when you're not so anxious because you know it's empty might work.
If even that doesn't help, then seeing a therapist or psychologist is very much the answer. I was nervous when I started my lessons, but as someone who suffers anxiety, it certainly wasn't at all debilitating. If it is, you need to go and sort out the irrational thoughts that are causing the anxiety, before you can really find a way to chip away at it in the car.

You certainly don't want to lose it all though. I am perfectly comfortable driving, but what anxiety there is lies in my distrust of other drivers (and the couple of close calls they've caused me), which keeps me out of incidents.
posted by opsin at 12:26 PM on January 24, 2008

I had a phobia of driving until I was in my late 20s. What I did:

I checked out a book on phobias (can't remember which one). I did an exercise in which you progressively imagine bad things happening. I think this was supposed to be a type of exposure therapy, but what it showed me was that the situation that really got my symptoms going was imagining a small fender-bender with an older man who then curses at me and calls me a stupid woman driver and I end up in tears of shame and rage. Believe it or not, this banal situation, not running over a toddler(!), was what created the familiar panic and dread.

It made complete sense in light of my upbringing, and it made it MUCH easier to get over the phobia. Learning to drive became the same as giving the finger to some people in my past who believed that girls had no rights or value. Interestingly, I wasn't the only female in the family with a driving phobia.

So it's possible that you might find some subconscious, hurtful message that is triggering the physical feelings of anxiety. Once you identify the message, driving can become a way of eradicating it.

Also, drive an automatic.
posted by PatoPata at 12:35 PM on January 24, 2008

When I took driver's ed, I cried every day after the class, so I definitely know what you're going through.

Here is the main thing that helped me: All of my friends were horrible drivers. They were all just learning, too, and were overconfident, took turns too quickly, didn't buckle up, talked on their phones, the whole deal. Honestly, I mainly worked through my fear because I couldn't stand them driving me places. What it came down to was this decision: I could either continue to get rides from people, completely at the mercy of their awful driving skills, or I could drive myself, and take full control of the situation, as nervous as I might be.

Even if you only ride with perfect drivers, I think the core of this realization can apply. Yes, it can be really scary thinking about what can happen on the road, about messing up or getting pulled over or driving in the rain. But, in the end, you have a huge amount of control over those things, and can take steps to improve your skills and confidence. When you only ride with others, you just have to sit back and hope they've taken those steps. I know which side I prefer. :)
posted by sarahsynonymous at 12:38 PM on January 24, 2008

In case anyone was wondering, imagining running over a toddler created horror, not the familiar phobia-style anxiety. I was looking for my subconscious trigger, not claiming that being chewed out by someone is realistically worse than any other situation.
posted by PatoPata at 12:38 PM on January 24, 2008

Can you do some simulated driving?
posted by Camofrog at 1:51 PM on January 24, 2008

Best answer: In addition to the excellent suggestions above, here's some things that helped me when I first started driving, and was nervous:
* Put some calming music on while you drive. My driving instructors would never allow music, since I was supposed to be listening to the car/environment. However I found that music, any music, was calming when I was alone in the car.
* Pick a route you know and drive it over and over again. I get lost easily, and although I'm now a confident driver, I start to fall apart if I need to navigate to somewhere new in an unfamiliar area. I feel like I can't fully concentrate on the road and navigate at the same time. Match this with the excellent advice to drive quiet streets at quiet hours and do it over and over again. The familiarity and predictability of the route/environment will mean you can concentrate on driving and watching the traffic. Once you feel comfortable, you can start to add other routes to your repertoire.
* Don't practise driving when you NEED to get somewhere on your journey. Go for pleasure drives only. That way there is no pressure to get anywhere in particular at any particular time. You can turn around and go home after 5 minutes if you want, or stay out for an hour.

The idea is to remove as many possible stresses from your driving practise so you can concentrate on the car, the road and the traffic. The less things you need to worry about, the better.

Also, just go ahead and buy an automatic if that would make you more comfortable. Manuals are fun if you enjoy driving, but if driving is a necessity or chore rather than a pleasure, then why not give yourself the comfort of an automatic!
posted by Joh at 1:58 PM on January 24, 2008

Oh, one more thing. Tell yourself that a driver who worries he/she isn't good enough is probably a careful and thoughtful driver who is less likely to have an accident. People who hop in the car after passing the test and think they are a great driver - they are the ones who have crashes because they are over-confident. Take solace in your worries, it means you are holding yourself to high standards. Give yourself a pat on the back and take a deep breath - you will be a good driver!
posted by Joh at 2:01 PM on January 24, 2008

Step one-- get an automatic. I've got one at the moment, and they're fun, like playing in a big fat go-kart. I understand the benefits of knowing both, but if you're just starting and are worried enough already, why bother? You can always learn manual when you're confident enough to make that step. I can't see myself buying a manual again unless I get a sports car.

I've got a friend who was terrified of driving, she was learning from scratch, but I imagine you're essentially in the same bracket. She's fine on all the back-roads, but start to go near a busier section and suddenly she starts worrying. If a car would come up close behind her, she lets it bully her to go faster and then because she's spending so much time playing the 'what if' scenarios in her head, she tends to make more mistakes on the road. Which ends up feeding the worry. Until she hit the point where it was just too much.

We worked through it though-- we started by going out at horribly early hours of the night/morning. Starting when the roads were desolate (3am!) to get her used to the feel. Then 5am and stayed out until the roads got a little more populated, and gradually it faded into normal traffic.
If you're not confident enough to go out alone, find a friend you trust enough that you're happy to share your fears (and tears) with and go play on the road with them! Desjardins recommends against that, but I see no problem with it, as long as your friend is laid back and aware of your fears. If you friend is super-stressful, then.. well, leave them at home :)

As for accidents, try and focus on the job at hand, if you starting to conjure up various scenarios, do a mental check of what's going on around you. 'I'm on the inside lane, I'm driving up the road, theres a white ford 20 yards in front' keep a calm running commentary to yourself, it'll prevent your mind for wandering off to it's over devious creations.

[Warning, potential hippy content] If you do feel your stress levels increasing, then really visualise turning them down. Actually picture a dial you can rotate left and right, as you turn it down to the left, breath out and let the stress go with it. You'll probably need to play around with your imagination, but actually try and link the imagination to your mental state. Give yourself a little smile after doing it, and enjoy!
posted by Static Vagabond at 2:30 PM on January 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

I used to be the same way. I had a crazy fear of it from 15 (after my lessons) until about 23.

If you don't *need* to drive, it's going to be harder to make yourself learn. I only started again when I knew I was going to be moving off my convenient bus route.

My dad actually lent me a car for a few months, so I didn't have to worry about crashing anyone else's car. That was very helpful, since the friends I trusted were also pretty protective of their cars.

On that note, do you have someone you trust, and who knows how scared you are? For me, that person was my roommate. She'd been driving me around for 4 years or so, so I knew she was a good driver, and she knew me well enough to be able to help me deal with the stress.

She'd make me drive to the grocery store if we needed something, but let me off the hook for longer trips when we had somewhere to be. Eventually, once I got the basics down, she made me drive everywhere. I could beg her, and whine, and get stubborn, but I'd still end up driving.

Basically, for me, it just came down to making myself drive, and having someone there to make me drive when I couldn't make myself do it.
posted by natabat at 3:06 PM on January 24, 2008

I think most of the practical things I'd have to offer have been covered above (practice! in quiet areas! a lot!), but I have a maybe-kinda-crazy suggestion. Read Going Out by Scarlett Thomas. The narrator has an intense and almost crippling fear of driving, and reading about someone else's fear might help you to better understand and overcome yours.

Of course it might also not. In that case, it's a fun read anyway.
posted by dizziest at 3:19 PM on January 24, 2008

I completely understand that fear of "OMG what if I accidentally turn the wheel and kill someone with this enormous mass of metal?!!" and I bet it's pretty common. (Especially it seems among fairly short females, interesting!) I waited until I was 18 to get my license but never actually drove until I was about 20, and that was only because I *had* to in order to keep my job, and I still can't drive a stick. What helped me was starting by only driving a couple of very familiar routes, as Joh recommends. Home to work and back, home to the store and back. Those helped me get comfortable with the mechanics of driving and I didn't have to worry about figuring out where to go or how to get there.

My biggest worry was the idea of having to do so many things at once - steer, check the mirrors, check my speed, brake, look for hazards, read street signs, etc. The reality is, once you start driving regularly, mechanics like steering and braking become automatic physical habits, freeing up your mental focus for more important things like hazards and navigation. But, like any physical skill, there's a learning period that you have to go through first, and that will only come about through practice and repetition.
posted by platinum at 3:56 PM on January 24, 2008

I was terrified of driving, but eventually I had to take my highway test or I was going to lose my licence, which would have meant losing my job. I thought I was going to kill myself on the highway, but I sucked it up and told myself it was something I had to do whether I died or not. Obviously I was fine, I wasn't a bad driver, I just worried too much.
posted by piper4 at 6:17 PM on January 24, 2008

Yeah, you're really not alone. I am in the same boat - have my learner's permit, have never put my foot on the gas pedal due to terror, and I'm 23. Luckily the two cities I go between have great public transit - perhaps the only solution is to put yourself into positions where you *have* to drive, in order to get the experience that would (ideally) calm one down in the long run. But I hesitate to advise, because, hello pot, this is kettle speaking. Good question.
posted by ilana at 9:37 PM on January 24, 2008

Response by poster: Hey guys, thank you so much for all the advice. I truly appreciate it. I think the common theme in all of the comments is practice, little by little starting from easy(less traffic on the roads) to hard(absolutely mess of card ;) ); k8lin mentioned having a cushion. actually i think i should do that. you see i learned driving in a van .once i switched to the car and i feel so short and also the car seems too huge for me.

i'm hoping to kick start the driving routine this weekend. hopefully in time i can say that i am constant driver.

thanks again everyone.
posted by geminus at 8:26 AM on January 25, 2008

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