How To Overcome Your Driving Anxiety For Good

In a recent survey conducted by Nissan, 23% of drivers said they felt anxious about using motorways and 39% of drivers felt scared or uncertain behind the wheel in general.

Driving anxiety, also known as amaxophobia, motorphobia or amaxophobia, describes the excessive, irrational fear people develop while in a vehicle. According to Anxiety UK, there are varying degrees of driving phobias, with some people struggling to drive on motorways, whilst others fear roundabouts, parallel parking, or being caught in traffic and not being able to ‘escape’.

“I think most new learners have a little bit of fear and mainly this is born out of the fear of the unknown, learning a new skill, tackling what for many are alien concepts,” says driving instructor, Mark Steeples.

The biggest triggers are mostly the fear of getting it wrong, the fear of crashing or in extreme situations, a memory of a close friend or family member who was killed or seriously injured in a road accident. There is also the constant tension of dealing with tailgaters; they exert undue stress and pressure on any driver let alone a learner. As an instructor my job is to alleviate those fears and help them find new pathways in the brain, hence learning muscle memory as with any new skill, but particularly so with learning to drive

Mark Steeples

Driving is undoubtedly an overwhelming skill to learn, with so much to think about and do seemingly simultaneously, there are countless scenarios a nervous driver can imagine getting themselves caught in, particularly after stressful past experiences that can see confidence being knocked from the off. But as with most things, consistent practice and tackling the problem head on can lead to incredibly positive results, and flipping the script on anxiety behind the wheel entirely… 

“For the vast majority, anxiety does decrease over time- it starts though with good instructors doing a good job. I take the view that what I’m teaching is a life skill and not just a process of getting through the test and then onto the next one on the list! As a consequence, I really take what I do seriously. Driving is a privilege and a huge responsibility to ensure safety of oneself and others. So good teaching is paramount in minimising risk. If the foundations to learning are correctly laid from the off, then much is done to lessen fears. Part of this is always considering the ‘what if’ questions – how does what’s happening in the road ahead affect what I may have to do and how I should control the car? It’s like a concert performance, rehearse well and there is less room for error.

“How do I deal with these? Well, it starts with reassurance; making it patently clear that I’m never going to put them into a dangerous or hazardous situation beyond which they can naturally cope. Moreover, why would I put them into such a place when I have an expensive motor car that could get damaged and result in me not being able to work as well as shattering their confidence! Starting learners off on quiet roads and building up their skill levels and gradually feeding them busier roads as their confidence and competence grows is the way forward.

Like any skill, playing a musical instrument is a good analogy, regular practice inevitably will lead to a more fluid and assured performance. Mark steeples

“Like any skill, playing a musical instrument is a good analogy, regular practice inevitably will lead to a more fluid and assured performance. With that comes confidence and enjoyment. That being said, I recognise that for some, it is purely a case of passing the test and there is little interest or inclination to perfect the skill, but if a new driver did as I often encourage, then the roads would be a safer place.

Whilst sometimes driving anxiety can be caused by imagined scenarios, a recent survey from young driver insurance company Marmalade found that a whopping 81% of learner drivers experience abuse or intimidation. Aside from making learners more anxious, the most worrying impact is that it is making learners more prone to mistakes. Sadly, it has led to 12% taking a break from driving, with 90% of instructors saying behaviour from other drivers has impacted their learners negatively.

Instructor Mark is confident that despite the worrying stats, even the most nervous drivers shouldn’t allow fear of intimidation to get in the way of their driving successes. 

“In truth, I have so many positive stories from over the years, but two that particularly come to mind. I can think of one lady who’d not driven for several years following a really bad rear-end shunt which had caused severe neck and back injuries. Additionally, she lived with the trauma of always thinking that the car behind would go into her. So my job involved a huge amount of encouragement, early preparation for hazards ahead and regular mirror checks, following the MSM process. Her objective was to drive again to be able to drive to work once again and transport young children to various after-school activities. I’m pleased to say that together we worked on these issues and her confidence was restored.

Another lady who’d suffered a severe stroke had to learn to drive again with a specially adapted mobility car. She’d lost much of the use of the right side of her body and thus needed to drive with adaptations tailored to her left side. She was, after several lessons, able to become fully independent again, behind the wheel. Her review on my website speaks volumes!

Beyond these, I can think of many new students who were initially very nervous at the prospect of driving and then to see them having successfully passed their test, driving independently in their own cars is very satisfying, both for them and me.”

London-based blogger, author of The Insecure Girl’s Handbook and self-proclaimed previous anxious driver, Liv Purvis, often speaks online of her experience in overcoming debilitating driving fears and transitioning from panic induced stalling at traffic lights to road trips to the seaside with passengers in tow, and the radio firmly switched on! 

“I wasn’t anxious in the sense that, y’know, I’d rather not do it but still would. Anxious as in leaving my car outside my parents house for so long it had to be given away, and the thought of driving anywhere solo would leave my hands in a state so clammy you’d think I was resitting my GCSEs every time I thought about getting behind the wheel. And that’s without even thinking about hill starts, finding the bloody biting point or approaching a roundabout.

I catastrophised every thought about getting behind the wheel, and continually told myself I wasn’t able to do it. I wasn’t a good driver and I’d be more trouble on the road than off of it. But the mounting pressure of things I’ve wanted to do, people I’ve wanted the ease of seeing and places I’ve wanted to visit- as well as a shamefully groaning Uber account and new responsibilities meant that getting back behind the wheel (even more so as someone with a licence) felt like a now or never moment. 

Liv Purvis

“Making a plan (including booking some refresher lessons and finding an instructor that could offer support on a flexible basis) and approaching these aims with a slow, considerate mindset was game-changing. Giving myself little goals, but acknowledging that they’re free of watertight deadlines and it’s okay if it’s not all easy and linear has made things so much easier too. And that’s just it- because it has gotten easier.

“I continually try and remember that I don’t have to feel comfortable doing things straight away, and although it’s good to make progress; progress comes from time and experience. That’s not a bad thing, but it won’t happen immediately either. Confidence takes patience, and remembering that you properly learn to drive only once you start driving (mostly after you’ve passed your test) has helped a lot too.”

Motoring journalist at The Daily Telegraph and campaigner for closing the gender pay gap in auto, Erin Baker, shares her practical tips for overcoming anxiety on the road:    

  • Take time finding the right instructor, ask around friends and family for recommendations. Especially ask how they handle nervous drivers and don’t feel like you need to settle if you’re not comfortable, you’ll find the right match eventually!
  • Go at your own pace, don’t feel the need to compare yourself with others and their learning journey.
  • If you find that friends or family make comments that make you feel uncomfortable, you can stop discussing details of your lessons with those people. You don’t need external judgement when learning a new skill!
  • Take control of your own learning, if you want to spend time focusing on certain aspects of driving, for example clutch control, then communicate that to your instructor – they are there to help facilitate your learning. You should take an active role in participating in the pace and approach to driving. 

“I always advise newly qualified drivers to consider taking the PassPlus course or advanced driving course; at the very least to ensure they don’t venture out onto a motorway until they have been given some guidance by a parent or family friend,” concludes Mark.

“Failing that, practical tips are, planning the route to be taken with reference to a map and not just relying on the sat nav; allowing plenty of time for the journey; perhaps choosing quieter times to travel and avoiding rush hours where possible, also consider driving accompanied to help with route guidance and reassurance on the road until the driver feels more confident.”