There is no problem driving around the city in my Audi Estate car, ferrying children, taking myself to the gym, or doing the school run. My consumption of alcohol is nominal, so I am also the allocated driver after any social occasion in the evening, as my husband likes to drink when we are out. I have no fear of traffic and can barge, push and cut in, along with the most seasoned city drivers – I have been driving for 25 years. I am able to navigate the biggest, scariest, roundabouts with no problem at all, park in a hurry, and wheedle through traffic. Occasionally, at night, on the Westway (a dual carriage way that bends from Marylebone to the A40) I can be a little frozen with nerves driving at 40 or 50 mph on what I think of as a conveyor belt and not having the best eyesight in dark conditions, but generally, driving in the city poses no problems for me.
My fear around driving kicks in on a motorway. I am apparently a sufferer of DAD (Driving Anxiety Disorder) and have a phobia of driving in these conditions. There is no Latin word for this kind of phobia but the nearest is hodophobia (fear of travelling). A hypnotist I went to see said that fear of driving on the motorway and fear of flying are the two most common reasons, people come to see him, so there is some comfort that I am not alone. The sheer speed of the cars hurtling along the motorway terrifies and exhausts me. The combination of fear and concentration needed for me to drive in these conditions, means that if I do drive on the motorway, I can only keep going for about an hour. I feel trapped and fear the fear of anxiety, or having a panic attack and hate the fact that there is no escape.
I haven’t driven on my own on the motorway for many years. I forced myself to drive in France last year, as we had driven from London and it would have been absurd to allow my husband drive all that way, but I certainly didn’t enjoy the experience and was very tense throughout. I can’t remember now, what it was like to drive in a carefree way, without worrying about crashing and dying. I don’t remember the problem when I was a single woman, but as soon as I was in a long-term relationship and out of the habit of driving on the motorway, the terror suffocated me. The first time it occurred our young children were in the back of the car and suddenly, the thought that we could crash seemed very real, and imminent. I got palpitations, sweaty hands and was short of breath – the symptoms of a panic attack. I slowed down from about 70mph to 30mph and eventually came to a stop on the layby. My husband had to take over at the wheel. I was conscious that my actions were frightening for the children, but there was nothing I could do about it. I’m not sure what would have happened if I had been on my own.
The speed and pace of the cars on the motorway always feels so relentless and my fear is that either my car will spin out of control and we will crash and die, or that I will tire of driving and won’t be able to stop, which makes me panic. When my husband is driving, I often wonder what would happen if he suddenly had a heart attack, or if the wheel burst, or another driver spun out of control. The apprehension and terror about driving is partly borne out by evidence: It seems to me that every time we drive somewhere on the motorway, we witness an accident. A hypnotist, who was trying to cure me of my phobia, told me that I was looking for accidents, but I don’t think so. He also told me that driving was relatively safe, and asked me why I’d like to get off the motorway, once I’d started to drive, surely he said, you would want to get off when it was time to get off. However after about half an hour I want to stop. That is why driving in the city works for me, there are frequent reasons to stop or slow, down and catch your breath. I don’t like the sensation of being trapped not only in the car, but on the road, hurtling along in a piece of metal. I feel vulnerable, the sensation of going fast for so long doesn’t seem natural, although it once did. My hypnotist told me to breath in and breathe out calmly saying, I am in Control, and sometimes that works a bit, but the fact that it has been proved both in the UK and the US that travelling on the highway or motorway is safer than travelling on ordinary roads does not inspire me.
I had a car accident when I was sixteen, and no doubt this is the source of my fear. We were not driving on a motorway, but on a small road in Nassau in the Bahamas. We had left a club, and I had climbed into a car with a teenage boy. He drove through a stop sign and a taxi crashed into the side of the car, where I was sitting in the back. The impact of the crash, broke my femur and I was in hospital for three months, while the bone failed to heal. It was a very long time before I could walk again. The more reasonable part of me knows the boy was obviously an inexperienced driver and had been drinking, but I am also hyper-aware that there may be other drivers out there who are inexperienced or have been drinking, although in the UK, it is prohibitively expensive for a young person to get insured to drive, but maybe that just means that a rich drunk, teenager would maybe crash into me rather than a poor drunk one.
I am envious of my friends who have so much more independence than me, it is not a good feeling to rely on other people to get me from A to B. I also had a three hour course by a company that helps nervous drivers. I was able to drive with the instructor on a stretch of motorway, but still it has not helped me overcome my fear, I still can't bear the idea of going on my own or for driving long distances. I know I need to practice driving on the motorway more often to help overcome my fear. I know this, and yet I don’t. I often wonder what would happen in an emergency, if I really needed to drive down the motorway on my own. I suspect that I would be able to do it, albeit slowly! Or would I?