Victory over the dreaded vehophobia

In 2003, while driving back to Brisbane from the Sunshine Coast, I fell asleep at the wheel.  It was a microsleep that could not have lasted more than a second or two, but for a brief moment on that warm Sunday afternoon I lost consciousness and was unaware of driving south in the fast lane.  

Jolted awake by I know not what, I felt fear, the like of which I had never before experienced.  My body surged with adrenaline and I was overwhelmed with a desire to pull over, but somehow resisted.

I knew for sure that if I stopped the car, that would be it.  I would be stranded on the side of the highway, somewhere east of Glasshouse, paralysed by fear.  

In a state of horrible hypervigilance, I completed the trip home uneventfully enough, but for me the pleasure of driving was gone forever.  

I had always loved driving.  Just days after turning 17, I had a driver’s licence to go with the new yellow Volkswagen Super Bug Mum and Dad had so generously bought me.  In the ‘70s, driving tests were still undertaken by police officers.  As luck would have it, I scored a handsome redhead, a senior constable with a charming smile that matched his good looks.  

He was quick to tell me he had gone to school with my older brother, which made him a good bloke in my books.  
Frank, which is what he told me to call him, put me through the usual battery of on-road tests – hill starts, reverse parks, three point turns.  Then he tested my knowledge of road rules.  

Being a conscientious type of person, I knew my motoring theory backwards and passed with flying colours, or so said Frank when he handed me my newly minted licence.

For the next 29 years, there was no stopping me.  I drove with the supreme confidence of youth.  I beetled (pardon the pun) around the highways and byways of Queensland, clocking up 30,000km a year, often more.  
My car was my most prized possession.  It meant freedom, exhilaration, and adventure.  Provided I had fuel in the tank or money in my pocket, I could jump in the car on a whim and go wherever the spirit moved me – and I often did.  
In the 1980s I drove back and forth from the Sunshine Coast to uni in Brisbane and nothing kept me from class.  Rain, hail or shine, I was there.  

To say I felt comfortable behind the wheel is an understatement.  I particularly liked driving the road between Mapleton and Nambour.  It had sweeping curves and winding sections that I knew by heart.  And the views were spectacular, particularly in spring when the sunflowers on Dulong Range were in bloom.  

In those days, I was unphased by fog, rain and dark nights and the steep descents; and precipitous roadside drops along the Blackall Range were opportunities to admire the view from the driver’s seat.  

Even a nasty collision with a stray steer in pea-soup fog failed to dent my confidence, although if luck had not been with me that night I could have ended up as dead as the beast I hit.        

So what went wrong that Sunday afternoon in 2003?  How did a momentary snooze behind the wheel turn me from Courageous Kate to Nervous Nellie in the blink of an eye? 

I’m stumped if I know, though I have had years to come up with a sensible answer.

What I do know is that driving anxiety is very common, although few people care to admit they suffer from it.  It can range in severity from a minor reluctance to drive to a total refusal to drive, in which case it moves into the territory of a genuine phobia, a fear that is as paralysing as it is irrational.  

Irrational and insidious.  As anxiety erodes confidence, it is slowly but surely replaced by dread.  What was once taken for granted and done almost automatically becomes increasingly difficult, insurmountable even. Like driving over bridges and down steep hills, or overtaking B-doubles out on the highway.

Motorways become no-go zones and the prospect of rain is enough to change firm plans and keep the car in the garage.

At its most severe, my driving anxiety was debilitating.  Particularly when I was tired and stressed, it ruled the roost and, like a disruptive child, seriously curtailed my movements.  

I had to choose my routes carefully to avoid areas of special sensitivity.  Sometimes I was unable to drive over the Story Bridge or use the Riverside Expressway.  

The motorways to the north and south of Brisbane were beyond me and the Gateway Bridge became a massive metal symbol of my fear and failing.  

For 10 years, I battled the beast.  I read widely in search of a cure and tried all manner of self-help remedies from relaxation exercises and meditation to active distraction.  

I listened to music, talking books and poetry CDs.  Fred Hollows reading The Man from Snowy River was a particularly effective distraction.

I nibbled on carrots, raw almonds and apples but eventually the crunch came as crunches invariably do.

In 2012, life threw me another curveball and I absolutely, definitely, positively had be able to drive to the Gold Coast.  It was clear choice between confronting my motorway fear head-on or living as a disappointment to myself and those around me.

To employ the modern idiom, it was a no-brainer.  I sought professional help and two months later I drove solo to the Gold Coast.  Was it hard?  Very.  Was it pleasant?  Not at all.  But I did it and have done it many times since.  

Earlier this year, I undertook a 1300km solo road trip from the Southern Tablelands of NSW to the Gold Coast.  

The satisfaction I experienced as I pulled into the garage at the end of the trip was simply sublime.

That disruptive child that once ruled the roost had been well and truly tamed.  

Visit anxietyaustralia.com.au


It’s not your imagination

Driving phobia is one of the most common phobias.

Anxiety can range in severity from a hesitation to drive, where anxiety is always present, all the way up to a total refusal to drive at all, in which case it becomes driving phobia. A phobia is a fear that is paralysing but irrational.

Overcoming vehophobia
• Hypnotherapy is one of the most effective therapies as it gets to the bottom of the fear, traces why it has taken root and helps provide Driving • Face your fear with positive thoughts and visualising ideal situations.
• Talk about your fear
• Take defensive driving lessons or join special groups.

Email me kate@yourtimemagazine.com.au or write to Kate Callahan, Your Time Magazine, PO Box 6362, Maroochydore BC 4558.