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John Ducker: Anxiety behind the wheel can be dangerous

Drivers experiencing high anxiety or panic may require professional intervention
Everyone gets lost in their driving life, but this loss of control can lead some drivers to feel anxiety and even panic, particularly for older drivers whose cognitive functions might be slightly diminished. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP

A few weeks ago, I saw a car being driven very badly. There’s nothing new about that around these parts. Most people I talk to or who write to me will complain about the pitiful state of driving behaviour on local roads.

But in this case, the driving I witnessed was well beyond good old-fashioned bad driving. At first, it seemed as if the driver might have been in medical distress — weaving badly, sudden stops for no reason and then hard acceleration — and repeat. But it wasn’t impairment based on what I saw in the person behind the wheel — it was more like fear.

Is that a thing? Are there actually phobias around driving? The answer is yes.

In the U.S., the Nation Institute of Mental Health estimates that 12.5% of the population deals with a fear of something in their lives.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, driving anxiety is not an officially recognized condition but two phobias may arise from it: amaxophobia is a fear of being in a vehicle either as a passenger or a driver while vehophobia is a fear of driving itself.

According to Anxiety Canada, anxiety can become a real problem when our body tells us there is danger when there is no real danger. The body starts to react to dangers that do not actually exist. That can be lethal on the road.

For some drivers, this can be brought on as a result of a general anxiety disorder in their lives. But it also might occur from bad driving experiences in particular.

Past negative experiences can include things like having driven through a patch of very bad weather where someone may have felt they had no control over their car.

It can also be about being the victim of road rage. Social media are full of incidents that border on the unbelievable on the part of road ragers. Often their conduct amounts to criminal behaviour. This can traumatize recipients just as surely as an assault or a robbery.

Everyone gets lost in their driving life. But for some drivers this loss of control can lead to anxiety and even panic, particularly for older drivers whose cognitive functions might be slightly diminished.

Driving alone while becoming lost or worrying about running out of gas are also significant factors recorded about driving anxiety. Even having a previous panic attack in a vehicle can lead to heightened anxiety about subsequent trips a driver may have to make.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America also lists things like the fear of dying in an accident, being trapped inside a vehicle and the general fear of losing control of their car as some of the more common fears their studies have found around driving. The ADAA also notes, though, that most driving fears are not related to being involved in a collision.

The driver I saw was clearly showing symptoms of anxiety or panic, a white knuckle grip on the steering wheel along with a vacant stare at the road ahead — unable to process what was right in front of them.

But symptoms can also include: shortness of breath, racing heartbeat, lightheadedness, dry mouth and nausea.

Anxiety or panic at this level requires professional intervention. There are many forms of therapy that can help. The first step, though, according to Anxiety Canada, is to recognize and accept your difficulties.

For drivers specifically, it might be time to consider other ways to get around, even temporarily, such as using friends, public transit or walking, especially for short trips.

The time not to be dealing with driving anxiety is enroute to an important appointment in the middle of heavy traffic. Good mental health is as important to safe driving as is good eyesight. We have a duty to take care of ourselves but also for the other people out there on the road.

Glove Box: A reminder this week from Ric to ensure your headlights and taillights are actually turned on when you’re driving. Most cars today have an auto feature that makes sure the lights come on when it gets dark. But the switch has to be turned to “auto” for that to work. Many vehicles have an override option, which means you can turn your lights on — front and rear — manually. Drivers who turn their lights off manually are often fooled later on because their dashboard lights remain illuminated even though the headlights and taillights are not on. No taillights is a real recipe for a rear-end crash now that standard time is upon us.

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