Motorway phobia, my full article from The Times
I am driving on the M4, feeling as though I am stuck on a macabre conveyor belt, which will end in death. All around me, lorries are thundering past, aggressive drivers are inching up right behind me at recklessly fast speeds and I am panicking because it seems impossible to stop or get off. I am imagining a whole series of morbid scenes – the tyre will burst, I will lose control and the car will swerve into the crash barrier. Whatever happens we will all die. My heart is palpitating, my hands are clammy and my breath sounds strange and unnatural. My ten-year-old son asks me why I am panting. I slow down to 30 mph and wonder if I will make to the lay by. I am shaking and sweating. I try not to cry.
My last serious panic attack on the motorway happened two years ago. Last summer I drove on the motorway for the first time since then, and only because I went to see a hypnotherapist. I am slowly regaining my confidence, but when I read about the pile up on the M5 in Somerset in which 7 people died and 51 were injured, I felt myself regress. I have been a nervous driver and passenger since I was sixteen and broke my femur in a horrific car crash, which I was lucky enough to survive. I imagine I will always be nervous, but I know I am not alone. In a recent survey of 13,905 AA members, only 44% of the women surveyed said they felt confident driving on the motorway.
After a panic attack on the three-lane Westway in London, which at the time only had a 30 mph speed limit, I decided to get help and booked to see hypnotherapist and psychotherapist Charles Montagu, who had been highly recommended. He suggested that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress from my accident so many years before. He guided me in some breathing exercises and finally hypnotized me, addressing my subconscious. It was hard to believe that it could work, but three days after my first appointment, I drove up the M11 with my husband in the passenger seat, breathing deeply and repeating the mantra “I am relaxed and in control.” My husband probably thought I was mad.
I have driven on the motorway a few times since then, but not yet alone. I still wonder whether I will ever be able to drive up the motorway like a normal person, without even thinking about it. The artist Polly Morgan told me that when she drives on the motorway she is in a ‘constant state of heightened awareness that she is in a potentially life threatening situation.’ This is exactly how I feel if I am brave enough to drive on the motorway, although there have been fleeting moments, when I think of nothing, or just enjoy a conversation.
Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, Consultant psychiatrist, ventral North West London NHS Foundation Trust, explains that my problem can be classed “as a specific (isolated) phobia. These phobias are restricted to highly specific situations,” In my case, driving on the motorway. “The trigger was the accident at 16 but the contact with motorways in later life is able to produce high levels of anxiety or indeed panic attacks.”
According to ex Police advanced driver Phil Truss, who instructed me on a Drive Alive DAD (Driving Anxiety Disorder) course which I booked after news of the M5 crash, it’s “mostly women who are afraid of driving on the motorways, maybe because men are too macho to admit it.” Managing director, Michael Sweeting agrees that women are much more willing to ask for help. “Quite often they just need reassurance to build their confidence.” In the ten years that he has been helping people with driving disorder, he doesn’t recall one man who has admitted to any kind of fear on the road, although Montagu has seen a few.
Obviously the severity of the paranoia depends on the individual– some women start fearing the motorway after their children are born, because they are conscious of not wanting to put themselves in potential danger. My fear really took hold after I met my husband and became accustomed to him driving on the motorway, so that on the few occasions that I did drive, I became overtly conscious of what I was doing and it seemed terrifying. Polly Morgan’s anxiety, also started when she met her partner and he always drove on the motorway. When she attempted to drive after he was tired and needed a break, she had a “total, consuming, crippling attack.” At one point in desperation she emailed Darren Brown offering to barter her work if he would cure her, but he failed to respond. When she split up with her partner, she bought a car and confronted her anxiety by forcing herself drive short distances up the motorway to see her sister. The more she practiced the better it became, until one day it lifted and has never been quite so severe since.
Jenny Jones, a teacher, had sessions of cognitive therapy for her motorway phobia. What finally cracked it for her though, “was having to put the whole thing in perspective. When my mother suddenly needed me at home in the country as my father was vomiting blood, I had to make the decision that getting to my father was more important than my fear.” Another woman I spoke to admitted she would sometimes fantasize about crashing into the car ahead, just to end the nightmare of driving up the motorway. After being rescued by police in a lay by, she was enlisted the help of a psychotherapist and ex police driver and embarked on a structured course; she has been a confident driver since.
Not everyone is able to find the strength to get help. Angie Barry, a stylist has not been able to drive on the motorway since her daughter was born 20 years ago. Charles Montagu explains that an anxiety can develop into a full blown phobia over time and gain in intensity. “The bigger it becomes, the smaller we feel. We get to a point when the irrational fear is disproportionate to the risk and inhibits our ability to live life fully and freely. That is the point we should seek help.” “Something happened when she was born,” Barry says, “lorries on the motorway turned me into a basket case. When my daughter went to boarding school I couldn’t drive myself down to see her and hated myself because of it. Over the years I have booked serious motorway driving lessons and then cancelled them. It didn’t help that we lived near one of the most dangerous roads for fatal accidents, the A361 near Exeter and I would get into a state and my ex husband would tell me I was not driving properly.”
The author Susan Hill has been driving since 1965, but chose not to drive on the motorway four years ago because as she says, “I decided it wasn’t good for my blood pressure.” In the past she had behavioral psychologist treatment for general driving phobia which she says worked ‘brilliantly and quickly” but she still avoids motorways. “I don’t like the speed of the motorway, plus knowing you can’t stop that easily and that when there is a crash it seems to be major and involve so many. Fear begets fear, so I don’t bother any more.”
Mitey Roche a writer who lives in rural France, insists that her decision not to drive on motorways is not a phobia. “I think my fear is rational. What happened in Somerset could happen any second anywhere. All it takes is one mistake. There are too many cars on the roads. In France they only have two lanes and people are going a minimum of 130km an hour, including trucks. I don’t fear driving in the States simply because people go slower and the lanes are wider. I am looking to buy a house near a station, so that I don’t have to drive any more.”
During my sessions with Montagu, he reiterated that motorways are statistically safer places to drive than anywhere else, but for someone like me it’s hard to believe that is true. Researching this article I found out that Department of Transport figures confirm that UK motorways are safer than other roads. In 2010, 1910 people were killed on British roads. Most fatalities occurred on rural A roads with a further 22% on other rural roads, 32% on urban roads and only %6 of fatalities occurring on motorways, these facts do comfort me a little.
On the morning of the DAD course, my apprehension at the slightly strange situation of going out in my car with an ex police driver, Phil, was surpassed by how embarrassed I was to see him wipe squashed popcorn from the passenger seat of my car. We drove to the motorway and he kept up a running commentary of what was happening on the road, which was slightly odd, but rather useful and I exited the slip-road onto the motorway – a real trigger point for me -feeling safe. There was not much traffic and I was being accompanied, so I am still unsure how it will be when I drive on my own.
The following day when I rang Charles Montagu to make a top up appointment, he made a reassuring and extremely good point, “The only reason the crash on the M5 was headline news, is because it is such an unusual event. If it were a usual occurrence, it would have been a small item on page five. Motorway drivers usually have a very mundane time of it.” I think in the end he’s right.