Driving

Survey: 66% of Americans experience driving anxiety + 8 tips to manage it

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With traffic accidents being a leading cause of death in the United States, it’s not unreasonable that many Americans suffer from anxiety and fear while driving a car. The act of driving comes with a lot of moving parts, and when you consider how one wrong move can cost your life, even seasoned drivers can get unnerved behind the wheel. On top of concerns for the safety of yourself and others, the thought of handling the financial consequences of a traffic accident may add another layer of worry to a driver’s brain. Because your peace of mind and safety on the road is paramount, it’s important to be aware of common driving anxieties and how to manage them so you don’t make a mistake on the road.

To better understand what aspects of driving make Americans nervous, we surveyed 1,500 people about their driving anxiety and whether Americans have a history of past traumatic experiences on the road. Here’s a summary of what we found:

  • About 66% of Americans experience driving anxiety, with 55% reporting they feel it while performing common driving maneuvers.
  • Out of those who experienced driving anxiety, merging onto the highway (26%) and backing up/reversing (19%) were the top driving skills that made people the most anxious.
  • More women reported that they experience driving anxiety (75%) than men (55%).
  • More than 3 in 5 Americans (62%) reported having a past traumatic driving experience.
  • Although older adults reported experiencing traumatic driving incidents more often, those aged 50+ more frequently reported that they did not experience driving anxiety compared to younger age groups.

It’s crucial to prioritize your — and everyone else’s — health and well-being on the road, so keep reading for tips to overcome your driving anxiety or jump down to the infographic to learn more. In the event that one of your driving fears comes true, don’t forget to protect yourself and your vehicle with a car insurance policy so you’re covered no matter what.

What is driving anxiety?

Driving anxiety refers to experiencing anxious symptoms when driving, getting ready to drive or thinking about driving. Symptoms can range from anxious thoughts when performing a specific driving technique to stress and panic attacks at the thought of having to drive a car.

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Nearly 66% of Americans experience driving anxiety — with 55% experiencing anxiety performing basic driving maneuvers

Whether you’re a student driver or have years of experience on the road, a majority of Americans (66%) experience driving anxiety. More than half of Americans also specified common driving skills like backing up/reversing, completing a U-turn, making unprotected left turns, merging onto the highway, passing other vehicles and switching lanes gave them the most anxiety. Other more complex driving skills (e.g., parallel parking) were more of a concern for 16% of drivers.

Although the majority of Americans experience some driving anxiety, over a third report that their nerves are calm behind the wheel. Additionally, a gender difference was found: Women more frequently reported that they experienced driving anxiety (75%) than men (55%).

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Most-anxiety inducing driving maneuvers

According to our survey, merging onto the highway (26%) was found to be the most anxiety-inducing driving maneuver. Americans are justified in reporting fear over this driving action, as the U.S. Department of Transportation cites freeway merges as one of the major traffic safety concerns and bottlenecks on the nation’s roadways. When merging onto a highway, drivers must perform complex information processing and maneuvers in a short distance and span of time, and these specific circumstances increase the likelihood of driving errors.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has also seen concerning increases in motor vehicle traffic fatalities on highways over the past two years. In the first quarter of 2021 alone, the NHTSA reported an estimated 10.5% increase in fatalities compared to 2020. Many of these fatalities can be attributed to faster driving, which is a frequent occurrence on highway on-ramps and on freeways themselves.

Backing up or reversing (19%) followed close behind as ​​the second most nerve-wracking driving skill. Reversing out of a parking space can be tricky thanks to blind spots, limited views of oncoming traffic and other hazards. Pedestrians like children are especially hard to see when backing out of a space, and this can cause anxiety for many drivers. With 9% of pedestrian parking lot deaths caused by poor reversing techniques, it’s no surprise that Americans are worried about performing this maneuver.

Additionally, females more often than males reported that either merging onto the highway or backing up/reversing gave them the most anxiety. For the complete breakdown of common driving actions that Americans are most anxious to perform, check out the information below.

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  • Merging onto the highway (26%)
  • Backing up or reversing (19%)
  • Unprotected left turns (18%)
  • Other, more complex driving maneuvers (16%)
  • Passing other vehicles (8%)
  • Switching lanes (8%)
  • U-turns (5%)

Why do people get anxious or afraid to drive?

Factors like mental health history, driving ability or prior negative experiences can all contribute to anxious symptoms while driving. Read more about these factors below.

  • Prior history of anxiety
    If you have a family history of anxiety disorders, your likelihood of developing anxiety in life may be higher. Natural predispositions to anxiety in other areas of life can heighten anxiety behind the wheel.
  • Presence of driving-related phobias
    Specific phobias like the fear of fatalities, getting lost, being in open spaces, losing control and getting trapped can all trigger anxiety. Additional car-related phobias like amaxophobia (the fear of being in a vehicle) or vehophobia (the fear of driving) can cause extreme symptoms.
  • Lack of confidence in driving ability
    Those who are learning to drive or don’t believe they have adequate driving skills may be prone to driving anxiety. Additionally, anxious drivers may overcompensate on the road, which can lead to mistakes at the wheel.
  • Previous negative driving experiences
    Scary or negative driving experiences can also trigger anxiety in drivers. Events like major or minor traffic accidents or driving alone at night can result in symptoms. Also, driving in dangerous places or under risky conditions like heavy rain or snow, fog, floods or landslides are all causes for anxiety, even if an accident doesn’t actually occur.
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More than 3 in 5 Americans have had a traumatic driving experience — with 25-33% developing PTSD after

Our survey also found that about 62% of Americans have experienced a traumatic driving incident in their lifetime. Of those who’ve endured a traumatic experience on the road, about three quarters (73%) were the driver in the incident, while one quarter were passengers (27%). Developing anxiety as a reaction to a traumatizing life event is natural, with 25-33% of those in a motor vehicle collision likely to experience symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) within a month of the accident.

Those who experience PTSD as a result of a motor vehicle accident often deal with chronic pain, extreme distress and lifestyle limitations such as the inability to work. In order to treat symptoms, affected individuals typically need to confront their fears and re-engage in the activity of driving.

The survey also found that older adults reported experiencing traumatic driving incidents more often, but this may be attributable to more years spent on the road over their lifetime. Although older drivers are more likely to have had a traumatic driving experience, adults aged 50+ more frequently reported that they don’t experience driving anxiety compared to younger age groups. This may be because anxiety is a condition that can be managed with experience over time.

How to get over driving anxiety

Driving is a necessary part of many people’s daily routines. Although many get anxious on the road, it’s important to not let your fear or nerves interfere with your everyday life. Try out the following tips to help manage your driving anxiety. Remember that if you experience extreme anxiety or fear of driving, it’s best to consult a mental health professional for help.

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1. Seek to understand what triggered your anxiety

When trying to overcome driving anxiety, it’s helpful to first understand where it comes from. Think back about your experiences driving, riding as a passenger or just being exposed to cars and reflect on moments that made you start feeling anxious. Perhaps it was a memory of an anxious parent driving or a television show that depicted a particularly traumatic car crash that first triggered your anxiety. Did you or a loved one experience a recent accident that preceded your anxious symptoms?

Understanding the cause of your driving anxiety can help you effectively cope with it. For example, if a scary driving situation brought on anxious feelings, it may be best to confront that memory to get over your symptoms. On the other hand, if you find that you have anxious tendencies as a person, it may be best for you to seek professional help.

2. Reframe your thoughts

Those with driving anxiety can experience intrusive thoughts that cause great distress while driving. These thoughts could be about getting lost or stranded, panicking in case of an emergency or even just the what-ifs about potential danger and accidents. It’s easy to focus on these thoughts and let them dictate whether we avoid driving or are limited in our abilities, but reframing those thoughts can help.

For example, if you’re worried about merging onto the freeway, instead of thinking about the potential for danger, recall all the times you successfully merged without an incident. Or if you’re scared that you’ll panic during an emergency, remind yourself that you know what to do and run through the steps that you’ll take to resolve the situation.

3. Concentrate on driving in the moment

Whether you’re taking a long drive or a short one to an unfamiliar place, it can be easy to think about all the unknowns you may encounter on the road. If you’re worried about things like heavy traffic, crossing a bridge or making that one unprotected left turn, you’ll be a bundle of nerves the entire drive. Instead, try concentrating on getting through each part of the journey one step at a time, and don’t let that one scary part dictate your emotions. Stay focused on your driving in the moment and practicing safe driving habits at all times.

4. Test out different relaxation techniques

Another way to overcome anxiety while driving is to rely on relaxation techniques that work for you. Anxiety can manifest in many ways, so first learn about what symptoms affect you and find an effective way to relieve them. A common symptom of anxiety is an increased heart rate, but practicing deep breathing can help you calm down.

Some people feel tension in their neck and shoulders when at the wheel. If that sounds like you, work on relaxing your muscles by starting with your grip on the wheel and working your way up your arm to your shoulders. If your mind races with a million thoughts about what might happen, try to put yourself in a mindful state before you even start the car. Do this by putting on calming music to keep your nerves at bay. Additionally, you can repeat positive driving affirmations if you begin to doubt yourself or mentally list things you see in your surroundings (e.g., trees, dog walkers, stores, etc.) to ground your thoughts.

5. Drive outside of your comfort zone

If you’re feeling ready to face your anxiety head-on, getting experience driving outside of your comfort zone can work wonders for alleviating your symptoms. Many people get anxious about driving in an unfamiliar place, but the more you expand your boundaries, the more places will become familiar to you as a driver.

Additionally, as you gain positive experiences driving in new places, you’ll build up confidence in yourself and your driving skills that will help you overcome anxious tendencies. Remember that driving outside of your comfort zone will trigger your anxiety, so it’s good to start small and be patient with your progress.

6. Get help from a specialized professional

If your driving anxiety is extreme and significantly interferes with your everyday routine, it’s best to consult a mental health professional. Depending on your genetics and other factors, your symptoms may be caused by a larger concern such as an anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder or phobia. It’s best to seek out help from someone who specializes in these mental health conditions so that you can effectively learn to cope or find the right types of treatment.

7. Consider cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a specific type of psychological treatment that’s been known to help people with anxiety disorders. CBT assesses your patterns of thought and behavior and specifically targets the unlearning of unhealthy patterns, so that you learn to regain control and cope effectively. If this type of therapy seems helpful for your symptoms, you can locate a CBT therapist near you with this Therapist Directory from the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.

8. Try virtual reality exposure

Although exposure therapy is found to be an effective treatment for anxiety, not everyone is ready to actually drive outside of their comfort zone. One way to still work toward overcoming your anxiety through experience is through virtual reality (VR) exposure. VR exposure therapy (VRET) allows therapists to offer gradual, controlled, individualized and immersive treatment for anxiety disorders and phobias in an environment that patients deem safe and acceptable.

It’s found success in treating anxiety disorders, panic disorders and PTSD and allows patients to practice new behavioral coping skills under the guidance of a therapist. For those interested in VRET, inquire with your provider about whether this option is available to you or visit a VR clinic in your area.

Although driving anxiety is a problem that as many as 66% of Americans deal with, there are ways to understand and overcome it. Use our tips for getting over driving anxiety and remember to seek professional mental health help to understand the root of your anxiety and learn effective ways to cope. For added peace of mind on the road, make sure you and your vehicle are covered with a car insurance policy so you’re protected no matter what.

 

Methodology
This survey was conducted for The Zebra on YouGov Direct. A sample of 1,500 U.S. adults ages 18 and older were surveyed on September 14, 2021, between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Pacific time. Data is weighted based on age, gender, education level, political affiliation and ethnicity to be nationally representative of all adults 18 and older in the United States. The margin of error is approximately 4.0% for the overall sample.

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