Katie against the machine
Settling down into the driver’s seat, I felt my palms go clammy. Until recently I could barely start up an engine without feeling the stirrings of a panic attack, and now I was behind the wheel with an instructor next to me, watching my every move. But it had to be done. If you are going to work, you are going to have to drive, and it was time to get some professional advice on an issue that had affected my private and professional life for years.
After being involved in a series of motoring accidents in the space of a few months in 2010 – both directly and as a bystander – I developed a phobia of driving. As this fear grew I started to refuse to drive at all, relying on public transport and long suffering friends and family to help me get around.
Accepting enough was enough earlier last year, I signed up for a course of driving lessons to reassure myself that I still knew the basics, as well as cognitive therapy to address the psychological route of my anxiety.
Although I am now driving in a way that was inconceivable a year ago, there are still underlying issues of confidence and aptitude that required greater attention. As it turns out though, I’m not alone in harbouring anxiety behind the wheel. According to a recent study by the Institute of Advance Motorists (IAM), a third of British motorists no longer enjoy driving, while more than half confessed to feeling nervous due to the increasingly aggressive attitude of other drivers on the road.
Driver training constitutes a big part of the IAM’s workload, with some 13,300 half-day courses completed in 2013 alone. Of those, 258 were attributed to helping nervous drivers with a range of issues, from vehicle or even UK unfamiliarity to post-incident support. That equates to around 21 sessions a month, which suggests lack of confidence behind the wheel, for whatever reason, is a much larger issue than has perhaps previously been understood.
Tasked with exploring the effect targeted training could have on me, I arranged to meet Simon Elstow, training manager at the IAM, for a half-day course of my own.
We set to work establishing our aims for the session. Following a brief discussion about my driving history, Simon explained that although the session would address aspects of driving that I find particularly challenging, I was not to feel pressured into completing manoeuvres or remain in situations where I felt heighted levels of anxiety.
He stressed the importance of not pushing myself too far, and really understood that trying to do too much too quickly would only serve to erode the confidence I’d already spent months rebuilding.
Taking to the road to allow Simon to assess my strengths and weaknesses behind the wheel, I drove a route I was familiar with, taking in features including roundabouts, congestion points and rural roads. I was encouraged to use a traffic light system to verbalise when situations became stressful, assigning red, yellow or green to events as they unfolded on the road.
During the assessment drive Simon kept up a near constant stream of small talk, which I assumed was to relax me and encourage easy communication. When we pulled over to discuss his observations, however, he revealed that there had been a hidden motive – to assess my levels of concentration and reaction to distraction. I was pleased to learn that I had passed this test with flying colours and also received compliments on my awareness of speed and the road ahead; all of which helped to re-establish my confidence and reassure me that there was nothing fundamentally lacking in my driving ability.
Together we identified areas of my driving that could benefit from targeted training including awareness of the size of my vehicle, lack of confidence at busy roundabouts, insecurity about fast moving traffic and changing lanes on dual carriageways/ motorways.
I was encouraged to use the wing mirrors regularly to check the position of the vehicle in lane to help gain an understanding of the size of the vehicle, as I had exhibited signs of panic when approaching pinch points in the road during the assessment drive.
We also practised taking a confident approach at roundabouts and discussed the importance of not dithering, as this can confuse other drivers.
Simon identified that I had a very passive driving style, often allowing other drivers to make decisions for me. Rather than being helpful to other road users, passive driving can cause issues – especially uncertainty about taking right of way at busy roundabouts. This can cause complications as the balance of the road is thrown off, and drivers are no longer sure of who is supposed to be moving and when, creating a potentially dangerous driving environment.
I was reassured that passive driving is common among inexperienced drivers as they tend to be easily intimidated and often harbour anxiety about causing delays or irritation to other motorists. It’s a mindset: you have just as much right to be on the road as any other driver and a raised hand to express gratitude can go a long way to diffusing any annoyance in the event of a stall or slow manoeuvre.
At the end of the session, it’s important to talk about what you have practised to help set all the new information in your memory. Repeating back the events of the morning, I was surprised by just how much ground we had covered, and how confidently I had approached driving situations I usually found extremely stressful.
The aim of the session had not been to cure my anxiety – that’s a longer term project – but to provide the tools to help manage it and build my confidence. Simon encouraged me to keep him updated on my progress too, and to get in contact if I had any questions about a particular driving scenario or wanted clarification about my reactions to an event that had unfolded on the road. This is a really important asset if you’re a nervous driver: knowing that there is genuine interest and somebody to talk to about driving concerns.
Following the session I’ve continued to grow in confidence behind the wheel, and feel better equipped to deal with the multitude of challenges life on the road can present. Long motorway journeys are still a little way into the future, but this session has meant that I am confident that I will continue to improve. The palms aren’t as sweaty when I get in the car now, and travelling for work has already started to get easier. I’ve even been able to repay some of those lifts I’ve racked up over the years.
IAM Driver Training courses starts at £200 for a half-day session. Contact Rahma Hussein for further details on 020 8996 9663, or email: [email protected]
As well as enhancing confidence and aptitude behind the wheel, targeted driver training can also benefit a fleet’s insurance premium. So says Mark Underford, assistant technical manager for fleet at Groupama Insurances.
‘Groupama Insurances have been working with Peak Performance Driver Training for the past 11 years and during this time almost 1,000 of our fleet insured clients have experienced the benefits of Peak's outstanding risk reduction and training programmes,’ Underford explains.
’In our opinion, the results have been astounding. We have recently completed a comprehensive actuarial study across 952 fleets that we have referred to Peak and it has shown that the overall frequency of claims has fallen by 25% and the average cost per claim has reduced by 23.1%.
‘This has resulted in much less disruption to clients business activities as a consequence of road traffic accidents, and almost certainly a significant, although unknown, saving in the human effects of such incidents and in most cases a significant reduction in insurance costs,’ he adds.
Peak Performance’s Personal Focus courses are designed to improve a driver's “hands-on” driving skills, awareness of risk and management of the driving environment.
The sessions are targeted to those drivers who have expressed specific concerns about certain aspects of their driving, for example speeding issues, confidence on certain road types or driving conditions, or previous accident involvement. Above all, the aim is to equip drivers with the necessary skills to reduce their likelihood of being involved in an incident on the road.
Tackling high speed
To address my concern about driving on roads with multiple lanes, my instructor Simon Elstow suggested we tackle a section of the A1 together. Sensing my anxiety he took on the role of a driving instructor as I joined the dual carriageway, advising on when to change lanes, pick up speed and what lane I should be in before a roundabout. We repeated the same stretch of road several times with Simon gradually reducing his input, until I felt confident enough to complete the section independent of his guidance.
I was encouraged to brake firmly on a quiet section of the road to demonstrate how quickly the car could slow down in the event of an incident, even when driving at higher speeds. Being in the midst of fast moving traffic is still an element of driving that I find nerve-wracking, but following the session I now have greater confidence when changing lanes and am able to keep up with the flow of traffic with ease.