Why No One Takes Having a Fear of Driving Seriously

Illustration for article titled Why No One Takes Having a Fear of Driving Seriously

I know so many people who are afraid of flying I almost wish I was a doctor so I could pass out Xanax prescriptions like they were candy. It's not that I can't understand being afraid of getting into a thing that's barreling through the sky while operated by two randos you've never met before, it's just that everyone has their particular thing to worry about and flying is not mine. What I'm slowly trying to understand, however, is the total lack of understanding people have for the fact that I don't want to drive.

That's the thing I tried to wrap my head around, anyway, after reading Katie Heaney's fantastic piece called "How I Got The Fear Of Flying Scared Out Of Me", in which Heaney describes being so afraid of flying that she took a train from Minnesota to New York to undergo intensive exposure therapy that would help her get over her fear. She writes:

"I’m biased, but I think the fear of flying is one of the most rational fears a person can have. There is very little need for explanation: You’re in a little room shaped like no other room you’d ever go in voluntarily, with wings, just floating along in the middle of the sky with no strings or stilts or anything. That is not normal behavior, historically, for a mammal, and because some of us are prone to thinking quite a lot about what does and does not seem normal, we get nervous. People who cite statistics at fearful fliers in order to prove to us that our fear is irrational — so condescendingly, too, as if we’ll suddenly light up, like, 'Wait. More people die in cars than in airplanes? You don’t say!' — are only half-right: The evidence does prove that it is very, very unlikely that any given flight on a commercial airline is going to end in peril. But that doesn’t mean the whole thing isn’t still very weird."


Heaney touches on something so interesting: the supposed "rationality" behind phobias. It's a common issue in all of our lives. "Oh, you feel this way? Well you shouldn't because x, y and z are true." Emotions aren't based in rationality and neither are phobias, which are pretty emotion-driven. It's fascinating to me how much flack I get for not driving when it's actually more "rational" to not want to drive given the same death rates that people state when they're trying to convince people that it's okay to fly. How does that logic work?!

Heaney traced her flying phobia back to some familial tragedies in her life, which is certainly common. I didn't have any real car trauma early in life, only that I've never particularly enjoyed riding in cars. This probably started when I was little and suffered from really bad carsickness (which I swear has abated). I grew up in New York and my family didn't have a car, so time spent in moving things that weren't trains were rare. When my parents eventually bought a car to get to our house outside the city – an old Jeep for like $50– I cried.

At this point, I should be used to how – even in New York – people think it's so weird that I don't drive, but there's always a little frustration when you have to explain something about yourself that you think makes perfect sense. And of course societally, it does make sense. Cars are how our world runs. I'll counter confusion and laughs about my controversial life choice with my argument about how completely environmentally unfriendly cars are (one terrible "joke" I make involves pointing out how the car and the umbrella are the two inventions that have evolved the least from when they were originally put to use). My other big point is the danger factor, though sometimes people are even skeptical of that, given that driving is a thing that they view as totally normal.

I think so much of what actually bothers me about driving is the overwhelming feeling of lack of control. I just cannot handle how much power I have to literally kill someone at a moment's notice when I'm in the car. Not because I'm some sort of Dexter-style psychopath who is desperately trying to reign in my desire for carnage, but because when I'm driving, it's very hard to think the way I usually do. My body is tense. My brain is confused. I don't trust myself that I'm good at this. I can convince myself into doing it, but it doesn't ever seem like it could be second nature like it is for some people.


My mother, born and bred in Southern California, barely tolerates my unwillingness to drive. She continually tries to trick me into driving, suggesting that, "This would be the summer to get your license" and half-smiling when I explain my reasoning for not wanting to yet again. (At one point, she forgot that I had kind of aged-out of the whole parent-can-tell-you-what-to-do phase and told me I couldn't go to college if I didn't get my license.) It's especially frustrating to her because I took driver's ed, I have my permit, but I just won't go get the license. Part of it is the test (I hate tests) and part of it is the fact that if I had my license, at any point in time, someone could just be like, "Oh, Kate can drive" and I would feel obligated to do so. It's selfish, but I don't want that responsibility.

This is the "personal motivation" part that Heaney discusses in her piece that's so key to overcoming phobias. I'm not motivated to do it. My mother says that eventually I'll want to because it'll be easier to have my license and I'll get sick of not being able to. She could be right, though sometimes it does feel as though I'm holding onto my one adult rebellion, over something that's not adult at all. You know, I'm an adult. I don't have to do this if I don't want to.


To me, all my reasons for not driving are the most rational. But why bother trying to validate myself? You all think I'm crazy anyway.

Image from Rebel Without A Cause

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Oh my God, are we the same person? I live in NYC and don't have a driver's license and, for me, it's 100% about fear. People hear I grew up in Boston and say "Oh, you had the T!" But, no, I grew up in a suburb and just had other people drive me around. Three people in my graduating class died in car accidents within a few months of each other during my junior year of high school, and as I've gotten older, I've only become even MORE aware how easily you could die, or kill someone, in a car. No, thank you. I'll take the train and walk around a little more. People tell me that I'll learn once I have kids - as if shuttling around my own flesh and blood is going to decrease my anxiety somehow. I, too, am pretty certain I'm never going to learn to drive - and 100% certain I'm never going to feel comfortable driving.

EDIT: OH YEAH, I was also in a car accident in a cab a couple of years ago. Still have the scars to prove it (wear your seatbelts in a cab, kids). So, there, even MORE reason to hate cars. DID YOU HEAR THAT, CARBS?!