Afraid to drive after accident

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

Okay well I’m 17 and I was in a car accident with my best friend and well it wasn’t my fault, this woman didn’t stop at a stop sign and she hit us, I had a concussion and my friend was okay but basically we were both fine, nothing serious but the other woman, she died. I feel really bad, but now I can’t drive, I’m just too scared to! My parents don’t understand that i literally cannot drive a car, is this normal? I don’t understand…im so frustrated because I need to drive, how am i suppose to get to school and work? How can i overcome this stupid fear so i can get on with my life?

thank you!

A: Of course it’s normal! Before the accident, the dangers in driving were an abstraction. Now you know from your own experience how fragile life truly is and how much we depend on others following the rules to keep us safe. Your fear isn’t “stupid.” You’ve temporarily lost your ability to shut off the awareness of dangers — something we all have to do to get into a car or plane or train without freaking out.

Further, I imagine you are sad for the woman and her family and may even feel what is called “survivor guilt.” As much as you are relieved that you and your friend are okay; as much as you acknowledge that the woman was at fault; you still may feel that it’s unfair that you should live and she would die. That’s also a normal dimension to a close call like you had.

The first thing to do is to give yourself time. You didn’t tell me how long ago the accident happened. But if we’re talking only weeks or a month, give yourself a break. Take time out from driving to give yourself time to fully recover.

Then put yourself quite literally in the driver’s seat. Just get in a car and sit there. Don’t start the engine. Just sit in the car and slow your breathing down. You may have to do this several times before you feel comfortable. The next step is to start the engine. If that panics you, again just stay put and calm yourself. Do this as many times as you need to. Next, just drive up and down the driveway. Etc. Take each step slowly. Calm yourself. Do it until you are comfortable. There’s no rush. Take it step by step until you are driving to work and school. Over time, you’ll be fine – with one important difference. You will probably be a much more alert and careful driver.

If you aren’t successsful after a week or two, you may need the assistance of a coach. Talk to a therapist who specializes in anxiety and trauma. The therapist can tailor the program more specifically to your needs and can provide you with needed support.

You’ve had quite a traumatic experience. With time and some coaching, though, you can get through this so that you can get on with your life.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 15 Jul 2011

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2011). Afraid to drive after accident. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2011/07/15/afraid-to-drive-after-accident/