How To Overcome A Fear Of Driving

Green exit sign of figure running towards arrow on a yellow background
Image source: DDP

All learner drivers experience a few nerves here and there, but for some people, driving constitutes a full-blown phobia. Anything from new cars entering the road to the sound of an engine starting up can be enough to trigger a significant level of panic. If you suffer from a fear of driving it can really interfere with your day-to-day activities. After all, you're missing out on a key skill that provides a level of freedom that benefits both your work and social life.

The good news is, a fear of driving doesn't have to act as a permanent roadblock to your aspirations of getting behind the wheel. If you're willing to get out of your comfort zone and put the work in, you can change your perspective on driving and reap the rewards.

We're going to cover the first steps you should take to overcome a fear of driving and some key techniques that will help you to stay cool, calm and collected behind the wheel—even after you have qualified. Here we go! 

Don't be embarrassed about your fear of driving

Motorway with poor visibility due to fog
Image source: Markus Spiske

Before you start taking action to get over your fear of driving, it's important that you be kind to yourself. The negative emotions around this particular issue often include a sense of shame or guilt about the fact that you are scared of something most other people seem able to do. This kind of attitude is not helpful to the process of conquering fear.

Almost everyone has a phobia or strong fear of some kind. You are probably capable of doing plenty of things that other people find challenging. If it helps, make a note of these things and remind yourself of them whenever you start to get bogged down by feelings of inadequacy.  

As fears go, driving is also not a completely ridiculous one to have. Hitting the road comes with plenty of risks and we are reminded of the potential dangers on a regular basis via the news. You're much more likely to be killed while driving, for example, than while rummaging through a drawer full of buttons (no shade to people with koumpounophobia—everyone's feelings are legitimate).

In some ways, it's great that you are acknowledging that driving is a big responsibility!

Why it's something you should try to overcome

Keys with 'Learn to Drive' keyring

The ability to drive opens up a whole new world of possibilities. Avoiding it altogether can place a lot of limits on your life. You end up having to rely on others for lifts and may even have to turn down job roles or social invites because you have no way of transporting yourself.

Furthermore, avoiding the things you're afraid of can actually make the problem worse. Because you have no direct experience of the thing being feared, the negative thoughts about it will never be disproved. Plus, there's the risk that the phobia will grow. At first you might just not like driving yourself, then it could be sitting in a car at all and before you know it you don't even like walking at the side of roads. It's a slippery slope!

Finally, think how incredible you will feel if you manage to beat the fear! You'll have grown as a person and proven that you are capable of anything you put your mind to. Just make sure you're ultimately doing it for yourself and not anyone else.

A quick reminder: We might know a lot about driving here at PassMeFast, but we're no doctors. If your fear is crippling and completely preventing you from getting behind the wheel, you should probably consult a professional. Therapy is a great tool for overcoming serious phobias.

First steps

Hand opening door of red car
Image source: Markus Spiske

What's at the root of your fear?

If possible, it can be useful to determine what caused your fear of driving. Often, it affects people who have been in or witnessed some kind of car accident. It's also conceivable that you inherited the fear from a parent or sibling. Knowing what the root of the problem is can help you to pinpoint where to start with the recovery process.

Then again, you might have no idea where it started and don't really fancy revisiting any potentially distressing memories—and that's fine! Just try to establish exactly what it is that you're scared of. Is it the act of driving, cars in general, being on the road, or all three? Once you've established this, you can start working on reshaping your perspective and exploring how you could learn to drive.

Finding the right approach

Seatbelt

When you are ready to start learning to drive (and keep in mind that you will probably never feel totally ready) it's time to consider your options. Depending on your personality, there are two main approaches to combating fear. One is to take things slow and steady, so you get used to being in a car and gradually build up your confidence. Alternatively, you could also just throw yourself in at the deep end!

While the latter may sound a little counter-intuitive, for some people it does actually work. If you take an intensive course, for example, you'll be too busy learning a lot of skills in a short space of time to give your fears any thought. This technique is definitely not for the faint of heart, though!

Whichever you go for, learning to drive is going to be a form of exposure therapy for you. This involves challenging your anxiety head on by forcing yourself to do the exact thing you are scared of. It can be fairly terrifying at first, but will soon feel liberating!

Choosing an instructor

To put your mind at ease about learning to drive, it's important that you're in safe hands. Make sure you work, therefore, with an experienced, DVSA-approved instructor. It's highly likely that they will have taught other nervous students and thus will know how best to approach the situation.

Whatever you do, don't keep your fear a secret! Talking it through with any potential instructors should give you an idea of whether they're the right person for the job. If you're not sure where to start, we have a checklist of the top 10 qualities to look for in a driving instructor.

Getting used to the car

Hands holding a steering wheel

One of the most nerve-wracking things about the beginning of your driving journey is that everything feels unfamiliar. You're (probably) using someone else's car, you don't have a strong grasp of the controls and you aren't sure how to navigate the roads. None of this is going to help qualm your fears!

The only way you can really combat this is to make whatever vehicle you're using a calm and comfortable environment. Your driving instructor will help you do this anyway, but straight off the bat, you're going to want to adjust the seat so that it's in the best possible position for you to feel in control. Try to also ensure that you only learn in one car—switching vehicles part way through the learning process can throw you off your game.

It's probably not advisable for you to bring pillows and blankets to driving lessons in an effort to get comfortable, but you can make life easier by wearing your cosiest or most confidence-boosting clothes. While pyjamas might be a bit of a stretch, your instructor probably won't mind if you show up in sweat pants and trainers (or a three-piece suit!). As long as it's easy to drive in, wear an outfit that makes you feel good.

To give the space a familiar feeling, you could try wearing your favourite perfume every time you get behind the wheel. We often associate such scents with positive moments in our lives, like fun events or vacations. Hopefully driving will soon be included in this category, too!

Building up your experience and hitting the road

Cartoon image of puzzle pieces

If you work hard and push through your fears, you should soon find that driving gets increasingly easier. The more you experience driving without anything bad happening, the more the basis of your anxieties are eroded. Plus, even if something bad does happen (you stall, someone beeps at you, you clip a wing mirror...etc) you'll see that it doesn't necessarily have catastrophic consequences.

Even if you manage to pass the test (congratulations on a massive achievement!) and still feel like you're not ready to drive alone, there are solutions. You might find it really useful to take a pass plus or refresher course, just to solidify everything you've learnt and put your new skills to the test. After that you can ease into things by initially only driving with friends or family members present.

Still not ready to get behind the wheel yourself? Increase your familiarity with driving by starting small. Depending on how severe your fear of driving is, this may be spending time sitting in a parked car, or joining friends while they go for a drive. Everyone's journey is different—start with baby steps and work your way up, if that feels more realistic.

Tips and techniques to control your anxiety

Neon sign on green leaves reading 'and breathe'
Image source: Robin Benzrihem
  • Write down a list of everything that scares you about driving.
    Everytime you overcome a specific fear or manage to perform a task you once dreaded, cross it off the list.
  • Give the car you're driving a name.
    It might sound silly, but you will be amazed how much this softens your attitude towards it!
  • Pay special attention to the moments when your fears about driving do not correspond with the reality your are experiencing. Try to turn your attention away from the negatives and onto the positives.
  • Practice relaxation techniques like controlled breathing.
    Take a deep breath in through your nose until your lungs feel full, hold it for a few seconds and exhale slowly. Repeat at least 3 times.
  • Establish a code word with your instructor for the moments where you feel overwhelmed with anxiety.
    In these moments they can take over control of the car, if necessary.
  • Stick to daytime driving while you're learning the ropes.
    Eventually, though, it's a good idea to experience all conditions with your instructor present. That includes nighttime driving, motorway driving and bad weather.
  • Avoid having too much caffeine before a lesson or driving on an empty stomach.
    Stay hydrated and make sure your blood sugar levels are stable before hitting the road.
  • Don't view a fail as a reason to give up! 
    Though we boast about our students who pass first time, it's actually not that common. In fact, less than half of learners manage to do so—hence the boasting!

These tips can be used both before and after you pass your test. It's perfectly normal for nerves to strike at random times, especially if you previously had a fear of driving. Just the knowledge that you have some of these techniques in your arsenal should make you feel that little bit more comfortable behind the wheel.

No matter where you're up to in your driving journey, if you're trying to learn while battling a fear of driving, just remember that every bit of progress is an achievement you should be proud of. Work hard, believe in yourself and the rest will follow!