Anxiety at the Wheel: The Fear of Driving

We've all known someone with a fear of driving. Overcoming it is a task that needs a mastery of both body and mind. Learn more in this article.
Anxiety at the Wheel: The Fear of Driving
Bernardo Peña

Written and verified by the psychologist Bernardo Peña.

Last update: 27 May, 2022

We all know someone with a fear of driving. In its most severe state, this fear can lead to what psychologists call amaxophobia .

In fact, 33% of drivers worldwide suffer from this fear of driving to some degree, with women being the most prone. In Spain, for example, it’s estimated that 4% of drivers suffer from it. Of these people, 87.5% are women, and 12.5% are men.

Let’s take a closer look.

What is amaxophobia?

¿Cuáles son las fobias más comunes del mundo?

Amaxophobia is the irrational fear of driving or the idea of having to get behind the wheel of a vehicle. The word is a compound of two Greek lexemes: amaxi, which means “vehicle,” and phobia, which means “phobia.”

It’s important to point out that “fear” is not the same as “phobia.” In the latter, the emotion appears distorted, exaggerated, irrational, and definitely not controlled. For this reason, amaxophobia is categorized as an anxiety disorder. It has negative consequences on people’s lives and habits.

On the contrary, fear has a rational basis, and it’s possible to control it. Fear of driving is characteristic, for example, in novice drivers and will subside with practice as they become more confident behind the wheel.

What is the cause of fear of driving?

According to the clinical psychologist Javier Díaz Calero, an expert in the treatment of this phobia and creator of the Spanish site “conduce sin miedo” (“Drive without fear”), people who suffer from amaxophobia can be classified into three categories depending on the time and situations that led to the development of the disorder.

The first category: Novice drivers

The first category is made up of people  who have just got their driving license. This group logically suffers from stress when driving, which is gradually overcome with experience.

This type of fear of driving is normal, and there’s no need to worry about it. However, there is a small group (representing 3% of novice drivers) who cannot control it and may go on to develop amaxophobia.

In these cases, when individuals try to drive again, they become really nervous and end up giving up. Díaz Calero explains that in these people, there is an “obsessive” concern for others. In addition, they cannot stand feeling judged by other drivers.

In Spain, this category represents 25% of amaxophobics.

The second category: A phobia after an episode of anxiety

This second category is made up of more experienced drivers. These are drivers who develop phobia after suffering an episode of anxiety at the wheel. Normally, this crisis coincides with some type or period of stress in their life that leads to this fear of driving.

Generally speaking, they’re drivers with five years of experience who have never had symptoms before.

These cases usually present two stages:

  • In the first stage, they try to avoid the place where they suffered the crisis at all costs.
  • Later, in the second stage, they develop such a fear that the mere idea of driving makes them anxious. This great fear of driving may even lead them to abandon this activity altogether.

This is the majority of people who suffer from a fear of driving. In Spain, for example, it represents 60% of those who suffer from this disorder.

The third category: A fear of driving after a traumatic experience in a vehicle

Finally, the third category includes those who have suffered from a traumatic experience while driving or simply while in a vehicle.

These are, for example, those who have been involved in a car accident in the past. Thus, when they are exposed to similar situations, they respond with anxiety.

“When they’re faced with a situation similar to the accident, it usually activates an immediate response in the form of anxiety that generates the fear that the situation could happen again,” explains Diaz Calero.

According to the psychologist, amaxophobics often have catastrophic thoughts about what could happen if they have an anxiety attack while driving. Thus, they feel unable to endure it and, finally, end up avoiding certain roads or situations, for example, or give up driving altogether.

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How does a fear of driving manifest?

Ansiedad a conducir

Overall, there’s a whole array of symptoms ranging from physical-chemical to mental. Moreover, they can manifest themselves in different degrees.

In general, they can be classified as cognitive, emotional or physiological, and behavioral. These questions can help you identify if you may suffer from this fear.

  • Does the possibility of harming yourself or someone else while driving cause you a lot of stress? If your answer is yes, you’ve experienced the cognitive level of this disorder. Amaxophobics have catastrophic thoughts related to having an accident, experiencing anxiety, or losing control. In short, there’s a fear of dying or causing death to others.
  • Have you ever experienced insecurity, muscle tension, stiffness, increased heart rate, sweating, nausea, dizziness, feeling sluggish in your arms, slow in your legs, or blurred vision while driving? All of these physiological level symptoms are indications that you’re experiencing a situation that is causing you a lot of stress and anxiety.
  • Have you felt that you need to be accompanied by someone to drive? What causes you to slow down? Do you only travel on certain roads? People with this disorder either avoid driving or only drive under specific conditions. This is important to consider because it largely determines the degree of amaxophobia.

On the other hand, it’s essential to remember that people who suffer from this disorder “are afraid of losing control of the car and come to think of virtually impossible situations. They often become obsessed with the possibility of running over someone and not realizing it, and may even think they’re going to overturn at a roundabout,” explains psychologist Encarni Ayoso Galisteo.

It’s possible that if there’s no awareness of the causes and the phobia is not treated, it will increase to the point of becoming a chronic situation, and the person will be unable to drive.

The consequences of a fear of driving

There are different degrees of amaxophobia, from the fear of taking a curve or driving on the highway to not being able to get behind the wheel without panicking. For this reason, depending on the severity of the phobia, different problems will arise.

One of the first consequences is dependence. Fear of driving can make it impossible for a person to move around on their own. It also affects personal and work life. For example, people refuse to go anywhere if they can only get there by car and there are no other transport options. Some jobs require moving by car in the work environment, and an amaxophobic will not do this.

On the other hand, this problem can lead to a deterioration of self-esteem. The affected person may feel frustrated, incompetent, and even inferior.

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Tips to overcome driving phobia

Miedo a conducir

Wanting is power

It’s essential to be aware that you suffer from a problem and want to overcome it. It’s a mental job, so the person must feel that they can overcome it.

Research where it comes from

It’s very important to determine where it comes from and what caused it to treat this phobia. Do the exercise alone or with someone you trust, and try to notice what situations make you feel anxious about driving.

Get behind the wheel!

One therapy for treating amaxophobia is systematic exposure to the source of the phobia. “You have to get in the car and face the fact that produces anxiety,” says Encarni Also.

Take you time

You have to face the fear. However, this must be done gradually. This way, you’ll be able to gain confidence.

To do this, you need to start driving in quiet areas with little traffic. Then, increase the intensity of the rides as you feel more comfortable behind the wheel. It’s also recommended to write down how you feel at the end of each trip in a notebook.

On the other hand, it’s advisable to have someone else with you on these trips to overcome the phobia. This way, you will avoid problems.

Controlling the symptoms of fear of driving

When symptoms such as accelerated heart rate and agitated breathing appear, you should try to treat them with abdominal breathing exercises and muscle relaxation. These techniques are aimed at reducing the physiological manifestations of the fear of driving.

It’s also important to regulate thoughts in advance (to avoid catastrophic thoughts). We must stay positive and evaluate the risks while driving.

Seek help

If the fear is uncontrollable and seems to overcome you, it’s best to seek the help of a professional. A psychologist will be able to accurately determine the source of the problem and offer support during the recovery process.

How do I know if I have amaxophobia?

Evaluate your symptoms according to the guide we presented in this article. If you feel like you can’t move forward or lose control over your emotions, you may need professional help.

Finally, it’s important to remember that the disorder is not related to the driver’s skill or experience. Anyone is at risk of developing this phobia, whether they’re a novice or someone who’s been driving for years.

For example, a driver with 20 years of experience might develop amaxophobia after witnessing an accident or having some personal traumatic experience.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Taylor JE, Deane FP, Podd JV (2000). “Determining the focus of driving fears”. J Anxiety Disord. 14 (5): 453–70
  •  Lauer G (1992). “The Treatment of Driving Phobia”. International Journal of Psychology. 27 (3): 469–469
  • Wiederhold B, Wiederhold M. Fear of Driving. Washington, DC, American Psychological Association, 2005

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.