U.Va. Driving Safety Center Helps Motorists Face Their Fears

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Marian Anderfuren:

December 11, 2009 — Roadway construction, bad weather and heavy traffic can make even the best driver nervous behind the wheel. Some drivers, however, have emotions about driving that go beyond everyday road worries.

For this group, the risks and responsibilities of driving create physical and psychological distress. To address this problem, Daniel Cox, professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, uses specialized technology to treat people with driving anxiety. Treatment is offered through the Virginia Driving Safety Center of Excellence at U.Va.

"The fear of driving can become so great for people that they avoid the activity all together," Cox said. "This can interfere with their ability to socialize, go to work and perform other tasks of daily living."

Treatment sessions include an initial hour-long evaluation to determine the extent of a patient's driving fears, followed by education sessions that teach relaxation techniques while driving a simulated vehicle. In addition, patients are encouraged to practice these techniques at home. Eventually, the patient moves to on-road driving and learns to master his or her fears.

The driving simulator, created by Cox, is designed to give drivers a real-world experience behind the wheel. It has a car video game-like console outfitted with turn-signal switches and rear-view mirrors. It also provides the sensation of accelerating or slowing down. A 210-degree, wrap-around screen gives a view of Charlottesville's streets, which the driver virtually navigates.

"The simulator creates a safe environment in which drivers can negotiate traffic challenges, improve their skills and practice using the techniques they learn to help diminish their driving fears," Cox said.

The program is for anyone with anxieties about getting behind the wheel, from experienced drivers with newfound anxieties to young drivers anxious about their new driving independence.

A $350 fee covers up to four sessions. Insurance does not pay for this service. To learn if this program could help you, take the "Are you an anxious driver?" quiz. Contact the Virginia Driving Safety Lab for an appointment at 434-924-5314 or 1-800-251-3627, extension 5314.

This story originally appeared on the U.Va. Health System Web site.