Driver Anxiety

Drive Magazine

By Diana Faria

Steve Penny can still remember the time he helped a Vietnamese engineer regain his confidence behind the wheel.

The man had suffered through a tragic accident that killed several family members on the way back from the U.S. one Christmas.

“He was extremely traumatized,” Penny said. “He was so terrified of getting in the vehicle that we only approached the vehicle for the first two to four meetings… we didn’t even get in the car.”

Penny, 55, has been helping drivers get back onto the road for more than 10 years. He has been a driving instructor with Young Drivers of Canada for 23 years, and is a part of a program called the Driver Reintegration program.

It took over 20 hour-long sessions, which spanned out across three to six months, to successfully reintegrate him back onto the road. Like most of his rehabilitation clients, Penny taught him defensive driving system, which consists of space management, traffic, and how to spot problems.

For the last few lessons, Penny followed the man on his way to work to make sure he was safe.

“We had little walkie-talkies in the car so he could communicate to me if he wanted in case he panicked,” Penny said. “In the end, he was a success because he got back to work- he was successful in driving again.”

Shirley Rolin, a driver rehabilitation therapist, knows about the challenges of getting back behind the wheel after an accident. Aside from having clients who have a loss of mobility due to a collision, she also has many clients who have had a heavy dose of driver anxiety.

“I had one lady that, when I went to see her, her arms were crossed and she said ‘there’s nothing you can do to get me into a vehicle. I will not go in a vehicle. I do not want to drive,’” Rolin said.

On day one, her client would only go into the vehicle if she was laying down in the backseat. After 20 hours worth of sessions, she went from not wanting to be in a vehicle at all to driving one confidently and independently.

“Through treatment, she ended up buying her own vehicle and preferred being the driver rather than the passenger.” Rolin said.

Rolin has been an occupational therapist for 30 years and a certified driver rehab therapist for 15. Her driver desensitization program helps clients get back on the road -and their lives.

People suffering from driver anxiety, Rolin explains, fear that every time they get into a vehicle, that particular accident will happen again.

“You can get rear-ended once and never think about it again, but you can also get rear-ended and every time you’re in the vehicle, you are checking your rear-view mirror because you think you’re going to get rear-ended again,” she said.

The first step is to go through an assessment, which can conducted solely by a therapist such as Rolin, or can be coupled with a biofeedback therapist.

Kim Salmon, 43, has been certified biofeedback therapist at the health recovery clinic’s Mississauga location for about six years. Her job is to evaluate the client’s physical response during assessment.

Salmon said she uses “surface electromyography” during assessment, small pads placed on the skin to measure results. She also looks at the client’s sweat response, using “two little electrodes that wrap around the finger to measure pore sizes”, as well as “peripheral temperature…and heart rate”.

After assessment, Rolin can begin in-car sessions with hand-picked instructors. Everything during the in-car sessions is tailored to fit the client’s needs to slowly and safely reintroduce them back onto the road.

“If you have a fear of speed, we’ll first of all talk about different ways of making yourself feel comfortable in the vehicle,” she said “Sometimes people are afraid to drive… sometimes people don’t want to go on the highway, and sometimes people don’t want to go near trucks… We figure out what their issues are and we focus our treatment to adjust that.”

Then, the client is eased onto the road one step at a time.

“We always start with residential (areas), then we work our way up to four-lane traffic,” she said. “If the client would like, we go onto the highway… We set goals for ourselves so the client knows where they’re going.”

However, in every situation, Rolin stresses the client is never thrown into a surprise situation, and everything they will be doing is explained before they step into the vehicle.

“We’ll talk about it,” she said. “Maybe we’ll do it as a passenger first, so then when they actually do it, it’s not as anxiety-provoking because they know what’s going to happen.”

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