When driving is not an option

NERVOUS DRIVER: Travel writer Karen Goa hates driving.
NERVOUS DRIVER: Travel writer Karen Goa hates driving.

New Zealanders love driving cars but what about those who are stuck on a self-imposed red light? Siobhan Downes investigates what it's like to be a nervous driver. 

Karen Goa loves to travel and hates to drive. Throughout her travel-writing career, the Aucklander has experienced some epic road-trips - exploring India by motorcycle, cruising Canada in a 56 Chevy - but she has always preferred the passenger seat.

"It's not that I ever had some major incident that caused me to lose confidence," says Goa, who got her licence in her native Canada at the age of 17. "I've just never enjoyed it."

While a driver's licence has always been portrayed as a ticket to freedom, for many, it may as well be a death sentence.

And there are more white knuckles gripping the steering wheel than you might think. An unpublished study discovered around two-thirds of a sample of Kiwi licence holders experience some form of driving anxiety.

The study - the first of its kind, both in New Zealand and internationally - surveyed 442 drivers aged from 18 to 87, and found half described mild anxiety, while 16 per cent reported moderate to extreme anxiety.

In a country that loves cars, this can have a profound impact on a person's life, says researcher Dr Joanne Taylor, from Massey University's School of Psychology.

"There is a real spectrum of experiences, from people who are at a very low level of anxiety which doesn't stop them from driving, right through to people who won't drive at all because they are terrified. If somebody is phobic, they often won't take a job because they have to drive, or their daily activities are going to be affected, because they're not able to get around. To be able to maintain your social contact and have a job, you are quite reliant on driving.

"It's a part of New Zealand's cultural makeup that people drive - it's just what they do."

Goa, 56, knows she is actually quite a good driver. Learning to drive in Canada's Saskatchewan, where the winters are long and the roads icy, defensive driving was compulsory. But when she moved to Auckland in 1985, she quickly became overwhelmed by the totally different landscape - hills and heavy traffic - as well as having to drive on the wrong side of the road. She started to rely on her husband and friends, or take the bus.

Six years ago, she signed up for a refresher driving course to try to regain her confidence. "It actually made me so nervous I broke out in shingles." Even so, she passed with flying colours. "After that, I thought, I do know what I'm doing - but I still don't really want to drive."

Goa says part of the problem is she doesn't really trust Kiwi drivers. Just the other day, she and her husband were driving through the tunnel near Auckland Harbour Bridge, and saw the woman in the car next to them texting behind the wheel.

"That's the kind of thing you see and you think, ‘I'd rather walk.' "

Psychologists say people are afraid of a range of things when it comes to driving. Sometimes a fear of driving can develop from trauma, such as a car accident. Other times anxiety can be related to specific driving conditions, such as driving at night, in poor weather, or on a motorway. AA driver training manager Karen Dickson says the behaviour of other drivers can have a real effect on someone's ability to feel comfortable on the road.

"I've spoken with groups of women in their 40s and 50s around the country - some in very senior roles - and they're all quite vocal about being anxious and nervous on the road because they fear other drivers. It's generally male drivers who intimidate them by tailgating, or passing them recklessly, or even being stupid enough to come through on the inside, because they think the driver in front is too slow or dopey . . . it unnerves people."

studies show women are most likely to feel anxious about their driving, while men are most prone to road rage. Not so for 23-year-old Toby Newberry, who describes his "general distaste" for cars.

"I think there's a stereotype of masculinity about cars, and I tend to not be bothered with it," he says. "I've never enjoyed driving, and the pleasure people get out of it is sort of mystifying to me."

He's against the monetary and environmental costs, for one thing but also fears the burden of responsibility that comes with driving - he has visions of causing his friends to be "horribly injured".

His parents encouraged him to get his licence in high school so he could drive to his sports games around Wellington. As far as he knows, his driving is fine - it's just he prefers to avoid it.

A recent University of Otago study revealed young New Zealanders are increasingly becoming part of a worldwide trend known as "driving ambivalence", with many simply not bothered by the thought of getting their licence but less is said about the young people who experience real driving anxiety.

Auckland student Sirena Kim, 23, got her restricted licence a few years ago. Her licence progress has since stalled because of her fear of driving. One time while driving on the open road, she became so stressed it made her physically ill.

"I've never had a car accident, but I've seen them happen on the motorway. It builds up more and more in my mind and I just don't want to drive at all."

So how do people deal with a problem like this?

Armando Dimuro of Auckland's Top Gear driving school says it takes time and patience for anxious drivers to gain confidence.

"If I gave you a brand new mobile phone, and said ‘I want you to sort it out in two minutes', you get stressed," he says. "But once you learn how to use it, you enjoy it - you take photos, text, email. Driving is actually the same."

Wellington driving instructor Sarah McPhee says it's about going back to basics. Her Triple A driving school specialises in nervous pupils.

"Quite often we find it's people that haven't ridden a bike or played any sport . . . whereas those of us who grew up on pushbikes and rode to school have that hand-eye co-ordination and foot-hand-eye co-ordination."

Sometimes all people need is to be retaught those basic skills properly, such as where to look and how to read the traffic scene, she says.

McPhee also believes there needs to be a culture change on New Zealand roads.

"Everyone's so quick to jump on the horn, it can be intimidating for nervous drivers," she says. "We need a bit more road empathy out there."

In an attempt to address this, last year the New Zealand Transport Agency launched a Drive Social campaign, imploring road users to recognise how their driving affects other people.

The goal is to encourage people to start thinking about driving as a social experience, rather than a selfish one. If this can happen, the roads may become a friendlier for nervous drivers like Karen Goa.

But for now, she is content with just venturing out on the smallest of journeys in her little 95 Toyota Corolla.

"Whenever I take it in for a warrant the mechanic says, ‘Wow, the miles are so low.' I say, well, there's a reason for that - I only drive it to the grocery store."

Sunday Star Times