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How to regain the confidence to drive again after an accident

A muti-car pile up after a car crash on the M40. October 17 2018. See story SWMDcrash.
Credit:	Wajid Khattak/SWNS.COM
Dashcam footage of a pile-up on the M40 - fortunately not fatal, but sufficient to shake your confidence behind the wheel regardless of who may have been at fault Credit: Wajid Khattak/SWNS.COM

It was a warm summer’s evening and Verity Johnson was heading to the shops in York, on her way home from work. A careful motorist, on familiar roads, she was proudly driving her new Volkswagen Beetle Convertible.

As she travelled at 60mph on a busy single-carriageway A-road, a BMW shot out from a junction on her left, into Johnson’s path, leaving her no time to brake. She swerved sharply but the inevitable, violent collision span the VW down the road like a tin can.

It finally stopped facing the wrong way as motorists rushed to her aid. Neither driver was badly hurt - at least not physically. Verity’s insurer successfully claimed for the damaged Beetle and police assured her she was not to blame.

Those few horrific seconds, however, were just the beginning of a lasting nightmare for travel company worker Johnson, 24, who – like thousands of road-users each year – suffered a sudden, major loss of driving confidence.

She says: “For months I was really nervous driving. Whenever a car pulled up to a junction, I swerved. I spent more time staring at cars than the road. It was over a year before I could drive on that A-road. Heavy traffic made me nervous, too. It’s still an issue that, while not at the forefront of my mind, I have to deal with three years on. I can’t see going back to how I was – ever.”

Rebecca Ashton, who has re-trained drivers following harrowing incidents

Seldom acknowledged and unrecorded in official statistics, experts believe loss of confidence in driving or riding (which is sometimes dubbed vehophobia) is widespread, leading to problems that can persist for years, ranging from nervousness – itself a potential cause of further accidents – to full-blown panic attacks and, if people withdraw from driving altogether, isolation.

The good news is that help is at hand. Psychologists say that with the right attitude, sufferers can recover and that help from a friend – or professional trainer – can swiftly rebuild confidence.

But what, precisely, occurs in a sufferer’s mind after a road accident or frightening near miss involving car, bicycle or motorcycle? IAM RoadSmart Head of Policy and Research Rebecca Ashton, who has re-trained drivers following harrowing incidents, says: “It varies hugely from person to person. One driver might find it easy to get back in the saddle. Another might carry on flinching when similar traffic situations arise later on, or suffer major loss of confidence.

“Sometimes a near miss simply makes people realise how vulnerable they are,” she adds. “Others might survive a big accident but find they’re unable to drive or revisit the scene. That is difficult if it’s near their home or workplace.”

The problem can run deeper than many realise. Leading behavioural psychologist Dr Lisa Dorn, Associate Professor of Driver Behaviour at Cranfield University, says crash after-effects are intrinsically linked to humans’ deepest instinct; that for survival. We are finely tuned to identify – instantaneously – potential danger via our emotions. These emotions can be imprinted on our minds by events, such as a traumatic crash, and triggered by similar situations later on, catching us unawares.

Dorn, who is also Director of Research at behavioural driver safety programme DriverMetrics, says: “A near-miss or crash can cause physical changes including endocrine release, heart rate changes and muscle contraction, creating an emotion. Memories can trigger the same physiological reaction as experienced during the incident later on. That’s why you might flinch when you’re back in a similar situation afterwards. 

“But that flinching can be a good thing,” she adds. “It means you are more aware of the dangers and can react faster without having to think.”

Dr Lisa Dorn says that the after-effects of a crash are intrinsically linked to our instinct for survival

Ironically, this very process can save your life, enabling your brain and body to take automatic action to avoid hazards without the need for relatively slow – and potentially lethal – analysis.  

Taking positive steps to rebuild confidence and manage your emotions might only be necessary when post-crash nerves actually interferes with driving performance, says Dorn: “Repeated exposure to the threat is the best way to dissipate it, possibly under driver training, while coaching will also be needed to deal with driving anxiety.”

Sports psychologist Linda Keen, who has helped racing drivers and riders recover from high-speed crashes, agrees. “Often, motorcycle racers jump straight back on because they have a dogged desire to win. Similarly, after a road accident, I would encourage someone to let go of it as soon as possible, as what you focus on grows. Keep going over it and the worse it becomes.”

Linda Keen has helped racing drivers to get back up to speed after a nasty crash

Adds Keen: “‘Relax away’ the problem. Learn from the mistake if there was one, but watch your thoughts and let it go. Don’t dwell on it.”

Keen urges clients to focus on the last time they had a great drive on a beautiful day: “It will ‘overwrite’ the bad incident.”

Keen interviewed former Formula One racer Alex Zanardi, who lost both legs after crashing in an Indycar race at a high-speed oval circuit in Germany in 2001, because she was fascinated by his positive mental approach. “He said ‘I could dwell on it or get prosthetic legs, learn to walk and race again’, which he did. UK double amputee Billy Monger did the same.

“Ordinary drivers can learn from this. If badly affected, they could undertake a relaxation programme which involves visualising the result they want to achieve. Issues can be resolved in just one session through Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), where the memory of the accident/incident is cleverly scrambled in the mind and the fear removed. The memory remains but the emotion is taken away – it’s always the residual fear which causes the problems.”

Italian racer Alex Zanardi was back on the track less than two years after losing both legs, driving a BMW touring car modified with hand controls, thanks to his positive mental approach Credit: GIAMPIERO SPOSITO/Reuters

Those struggling to return to normal driving should also consider short, specialist driver training with a professional organisation. In addition, suggests Dr Dorn, professional “systematic desensitisation” might help (including pictures of the road set-up with relaxation exercises, followed by a visit on foot with relaxation exercises, then visits as a driver, using relaxation skills such as measured, deep breaths).

Today, Verity Johnson is driving more confidently again thanks to her partner, AA Patrol of the Year George Flinton – and even paid to have the written-off Beetle rebuilt. “George got me back behind the wheel, eventually driving me past the accident scene to show it could be OK,” she says.

“I am getting better – but I think that day will be at the back of my mind forever.”

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