Do you suffer from driving anxiety? You’re not alone

Driving anxiety is reasonably common and negatively affects people's lives, yet most sufferers don't seek help, researchers say.

Clinical psychologist Jacqui Triffitt, who presented a workshop on driving anxiety at the APS College of Clinical Psychologists conference on Sunday, said she has worked with people with driving anxiety since the late 1990s.

"I call it 'driving anxiety', but that can vary from heightened anxiety while driving, to avoiding driving altogether," said Dr Triffitt of Hill Street Psychology in Hobart.

Matthew Powell had driving anxiety for about 18 months after having a car accident when he was a young, inexperienced driver.Credit:Steven Siewert

"I think it is under-reported, people might not put their hand up for it because we have this expectation that everyone should be able to drive and people can always find alternative ways of travelling or relying on other people to drive them places."

She often works with people who have had a motor vehicle accident and lost their driving confidence.

Another common scenario is an elderly woman whose male partner was the main driver for the family.

"He's become sick or ill and the older female driver needs to drive again for independence and convenience but things like traffic conditions have changed," she said.

There are many people who never got their driving licence because they could not overcome anxiety in the learning process, while others might drive generally but avoid freeways, bridges or the CBD.

Figures from the NSW Roads and Maritime Services show men are more likely to hold a driver licence than women, across all age groups.

Matthew Powell, 48, from Rhodes in Sydney, said he had an accident in Chatswood when he was a young and inexperienced driver and it took him years to overcome.

"I was going around a corner I'd gone around a lot of times before and … completely misjudged it, lost control, mounted the kerb, wrote off the car, and wound up in hospital with a cracked sternum," Mr Powell said.

"All of a sudden I felt like I didn't know what was coming around the corners and any time something went wrong, any time I made a small error of judgment and somebody tooted me, it absolutely shattered my confidence and I ended up pulling off the road because I couldn't deal with situations that wouldn't have thrown me before."

He is still cautious passing that corner.

A 2018 New Zealand study by Joanne Taylor at the school of psychology at Massey University suggested 52 per cent of the population experience mild anxiety when they drive and 16 per cent feel moderate to severe driving anxiety.

That's based on 441 responses to a survey sent to a random sample of 1500 people, aged up to 87.

Dr Taylor said there was no published research on driving anxiety by location but it might be worse in a big city like Sydney or Melbourne.

"I would expect that people who might experience driving anxiety could be more likely to have that experience in big cities," she said.

"There are a range of types of situations that people describe being anxious about … but some of the factors such as heavy traffic, bridges, and annoying other drivers are probably more likely in bigger cities."

Dr Taylor said driving anxiety is very treatable but many people would not seek help because of shame. She would like to see more online resources to help sufferers.

Dr Triffitt, the author of Back in the Driver’s Seat, said working with a psychologist can help people overcome driving anxiety.

Nervous drivers could also benefit from a few professional lessons to consolidate skills and build up evidence of competence.

"First of all people need to understand what their anxiety is about … and find ways to manage the symptoms and relax but also to stay mindful as well so they're concentrating on the job of driving, rather than thinking of all the things that could happen," Dr Triffitt said.

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