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Overcoming the Fear of Driving, One Lesson at a Time

Sometimes rational decision-making can help overturn a phobia

By Amy L. | January 7, 2014
womans hand holding key in car door lock
Hemera | Thinkstock

I'm terrified of crashes and vehicular accidents. I have a morbid fascination with news reports about them. It seems as if every time I open my local newspaper, another accident is being highlighted. It's appalling. How do they happen? Why? Are people really so reckless, aggressive, inattentive, selfish and incompetent? How do some people get their drivers' licenses in the first place? Why can’t people slow down and obey the rules of the road?
 
I don't have answers to the questions that plague me. Of course, intellectually, I know that the majority of drivers get from point A to point B safely and without incident. I also know that sometimes accidents happen even to experienced drivers — a fact that only exacerbates my fears. What’s more, I have my driver’s license. I actually took driving lessons many years ago and passed my road test (after two failures). But I never got real-world experience behind the wheel. The knowledge that, as a driver, I was responsible not only for my own safety, but also that of those around me — including passengers and other drivers — panicked me. I couldn’t control everyone and everything on the open road, and so I didn’t want to go there.

I live in a suburban commuter town, so thankfully, getting to my place of employment by train is relatively easy — but still, a car for access to shopping, medical appointments, etc., is pretty much a necessity. My husband and friends have been my relatively cheerful (if at times, reluctant) "chauffeurs" for years now, but I have come to realize that it's unfair to keep relying on them for assistance in getting from here to there. And although they didn’t complain, I recognized that by relying on them, I was also curtailing my own sense of freedom, especially during the times when the fear was so strong that I couldn’t even be a passenger for more than a short hop to the store. My panic attacks and palpitations were making me restrict my life, and not letting others enjoy my company. I finally accepted that I had little choice but to somehow manage my fear of driving.

I’ve been working on my fears (driving isn’t the only one), but it’s been the most tenacious — in therapy. My therapist has been helping me reframe that fear by focusing on the positive aspects of being able to drive and providing a realistic context for this activity. My therapist also gave me some practical tools, like how to break a major road trip into a bunch of manageable distance milestones. With those supports, I told myself that there comes a time when a mature adult has to do more than simply cope. I had to make a concrete, action-oriented decision to master this life-diminishing phobia.
 
In  2011, I mustered the courage to make a New Year’s resolution to take driving lessons — and in October 2011, I followed through. In my first lesson, I found I didn't even remember how to start the car. Looking at my license and my middle-aged face, the instructor was surprised when I told him to treat me just like a 16-year-old newbie with a learner's permit. And that’s what he’s doing.
 
I am still taking lessons once a week, and I confess I don't practice driving much on my own. But I think I've progressed to the point where I can drive fairly comfortably on local roads if the weather is good and someone is in the car with me. I can get to the supermarket and the doctor's office. I may never be able to drive on a highway, and long road trips may still, or always, be out of reach, but time will tell what I will be able to accomplish. It's all still a process, but a forward-looking one. At least I've finally put my pedal to the metal. And I feel great knowing that I’m overcoming my fear, expanding my world and proclaiming my independence.

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