How do driving phobias start?

Pretty well all driving phobias are set up by a one-off learning event.

It would be natural to assume that this event has to be something really traumatic and life-threatening like a road traffic accident. But if it had been, it would most likely create some form of short-lived post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a natural avoidance of driving for some time afterwards and this is slightly different in nature and structure to a driving phobia. So many people with a fear of driving will say they don’t know when their thing started because they are searching their minds for something horrific.

The reality is that probably 95% or more of driving phobias start with something milder – like suddenly feeling a little strange when driving at speed on a multi-lane highway. Something like:

“I was just driving along and I tried to overtake a truck….. and couldn’t do it and felt a bit panicky and weird…. and managed to drive on then thought nothing of it until it happened again the next day.”

This kind of experience would probably hold true for more than half of all set-up events for driving phobias.

If you are following the math(s) then you can see that there is a 9 out of 10 chance that your driving phobia was caused by a relatively mild, one-off learning event. There is a high probability that it started on a multi-lane highway when you were much more stressed than usual.

How people manage driving fear

Most people with a fear of driving will try and hide their distress because they think there’s something wrong with them or they’re going mad or becoming a nervous wreck. Very rarely will they tell anyone beyond their partner or immediate family. Even then, they are unlikely to disclose the full extent of their fear.

So safety and avoidance strategies are used by the sufferer to reduce their anxiety and exposure and to conceal and accommodate their panic and embarrassment.

These strategies will include:

Planning and driving alternative routes to avoid particular types of roads (like multi-lane roads, freeways and motorways). Drivers become experts on finding and driving back road routes (they love their Sat-Navs) and can even convince themselves that the bigger roads are always jammed so” it’s quicker this way”.

Driving at times when the roads are clear to avoid traffic. Typically this will involve leaving for work at unsociable hours (like 5am) and returning late in the evening. It makes for a very long working day with a stressful drive home at the end.

Relying on partners or friends to drive instead or take over en route.

Making excuses to avoid driving with friends and colleagues, or giving people lifts, who might notice their anxiety: “I’m going a different way” or “I’ll meet you there”.

Finding other “reasons” to turn down jobs, promotions, social invitations and vacations that would involve driving

Manipulating people and situations to avoid having to drive.

Fear, as they say, is the mother of invention.