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Overcoming my driving anxiety

Jul. 6, 2018
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As soon as I turned fifteen, I sprinted into the DMV to take my learner’s permit test. I had been studying for weeks and answered every question correctly. My mom signed me up for thirty hours of Driver’s Ed and finally, after months of waiting, I got behind the wheel.

I inserted the key into the ignition. My hand gripped the gear stick.

And then my heart stopped. 

My hands started shaking. Sweat dripped down my forehead. Even in the middle of an empty parking lot, I suddenly became terrified that I was somehow going to crash. Every bit of information that I knew about driving seemed to disappear from my mind.

“You just have to get used to driving,” my mom said from next to me with a reassuring smile. Yet, even after six hours of lessons with a professional driving instructor, I still found myself drowning in anxiety every time I got behind the wheel. 

My Instagram feed began to fill up with pictures of my friends and their brand new cars. A wave of insecurity washed over me every time I double-tapped. I did everything in my power to try and overcome my fear, but the more often I found my foot against the gas pedal, the less confident I became. One question echoed over and over in my head: why is there such a huge pressure on American teenagers to learn how to drive? 

In places like New York City and downtown London, public transportation is easily accessible and very few teenagers (or adults, for that matter) have driver’s licenses. Vehicular death rates with teens behind the wheel are very low. However, in most suburban American towns, reliable public transportation is practically nonexistent. In towns like these, I completely understand the need for teenagers to be able to transport themselves, but with such a high vehicular crash rate in young adults, is driving a car really the ultimate answer? Why not expand public transportation to make it accessible throughout all areas of the country? 

I think one way of doing this is increasing the accessibility and adding further safety precautions to Uber, Lyft and other similar rideshare programs. If companies like Uber ordered extensive driver background checks, security cameras in cars, etc., I believe that these companies could completely revolutionize safe and reliable methods of transportation for teenagers. Self-driving automobile technology is also on the rise, promising a future of fewer accidents and vehicular deaths. Regardless, one thing I know for certain is that teenagers shouldn’t feel pressured to drive, especially if they don’t feel safe and confident controlling a car.

I won’t deny that my lack of driving ability made me incredibly insecure. I spent countless hours crying out of complete and total frustration with myself. But once I started to realize that having a license really isn’t the most important thing in the world, driving started to become a little bit easier for me. I found myself using a few different coping methods to help with my driving anxiety, and I’m proud to say that as of four days ago, at age 18, I am now a licensed driver! 

Here are the coping strategies that I’ve found useful in my journey towards learning to drive.

  1. Play driving video games or drive go-karts. 

Driving a vehicle doesn’t have to mean climbing into your parents’ old car and hitting the road. Hundreds of driving video-games are easily accessible and mimic the driving experience without real-world risk. These games will allow you to become more familiar with the driving process. My dad also recommended that we drive go-karts, allowing me to start learning more about myself as an independent driver without any fear of running a red light. 

2. Sign up for Driver’s Ed and driving lessons.

I’ve heard dozens of horror stories about driver’s ed. Sitting in a classroom for three days watching videos about road rules wasn’t exactly my idea of fun, either. But I did find myself feeling a lot more confident after taking a driver’s education course. I learned about rules that I never even knew of—rules that could potentially save my life. 

I also signed up for six hours of in-car driving lessons. An instructor picked me up inside of a car with pedals on both sides. Therefore, if I were to make a driving mistake, I knew that the instructor could take over and ensure our safety. My instructor was calm and encouraging. It was much easier for me to feel comfortable in a car with someone apart from my parents. Plus, I couldn’t let my anxiety stop me from driving—once the lessons were scheduled and paid for, I couldn’t lose hundreds of dollars just because I was anxious! 

3. Listen to the radio.

Once I became a more confident driver, playing music quietly on the radio helped me concentrate and distract myself from some of the stress. I recommend making a playlist of some of your favorite songs to have in the background as you drive. 

4. Spend lots of time in empty parking lots.

Nobody can hit you (or hate you!) in an empty parking lot. You’ll be able to practice parking your car as well as basic maneuvering without fear of people judging you.

5. Sit in your car. Every day.

You don’t even have to drive. Just sit in your car and familiarize yourself with the controls. One of the biggest causes of my driving anxiety was my lack of confidence in myself because I didn’t truly know the vehicle well. However, now that I know exactly how to turn the windshield wipers on, adjust my mirrors, defrost windows, and more, I feel way more confident operating a vehicle. 

Once you’ve conquered learning how to drive, you’ll probably face the same (new) fear that I did: taking your road test. I scheduled mine about a month out and spent weeks worrying about it. I probably watched every single YouTube video that has ever been published about driving test tips and tricks—yet when I got behind the wheel with the examiner beside me, I pretty much forgot everything. My hands shook. I was nervous. I drove below the speed limit and ran over cones while attempting to parallel park. 

But my subconscious knew that I had prepared for this. Despite everything I had been through, a part of me was still confident. I drove well enough to get my license. 

To everyone reading this struggling with driving—you are not alone. You’ll be perfectly fine with or without a license, and it certainly does not define who you are as a person. I encourage you to try and overcome your anxiety, but if it really is too much, remember that your safety is more important than driving a vehicle. As long as you know that you’re being safe, whether that means driving a vehicle or not, know that I’m incredibly proud of you!