The road worrier: How I got over my fear of driving


(Ben Claassen III/For Express)

After I explained what I was looking for, there was a long pause. Then the voice on the other end of the phone sputtered, “But you already have a license? I don’t understand.” So I went over my situation yet again: Years of avoiding driving had left me feeling rusty — and genuinely scared of getting behind the wheel. What could help, I decided, was an instructor who’d ride shotgun and provide a constant stream of affirmation.

Apparently, this isn’t a service local driving schools provide.

There was only one way I was going to overcome my phobia. And that was to hit the road, solo and as much as possible.

As a dedicated pedestrian and transit enthusiast, I pride myself on being able to get almost anywhere without a car. I don’t mind waiting around, transferring or having to walk a while. My crowning achievement? Making my way to a wedding in Connecticut via bus, train, an art museum shuttle and a short stroll.

But route maps and schedules have their limits. There are places — a whole lot of them — that are accessible only by car. And there are emergency situations that demand a willingness to take the wheel. I had to wonder: Were my neuroses holding me back (or, at least, sending me on absurd and unnecessary intermodal journeys)? And if left unchecked, could this situation turn dangerous?

My self-imposed therapy started a few months ago with weekend excursions to buy groceries. The roads aren’t that busy, I don’t have to travel all that far, and I get to reward myself with bulk purchases. (On foot, I would have to just say no to a case of coconut water.)

Despite a few hairy situations in parking lots, I became comfortable with the routine quickly. It was time to up my game by tackling rush hour traffic, darkness and what we native Marylanders consider the final frontier: Virginia.

What I realized — even without paying someone else to reassure me — is that I’m a pretty decent driver. Other folks on the road might say I’m too slow, but I prefer to think of myself as “law-abiding.” I’m incredibly alert. And although one of the things about driving that made me a nervous wreck was the specter of parallel parking, it turns out that I’ve retained that particular bit of muscle memory from my driver’s license test more than 15 years ago.

More progress lies ahead. I’m still overly anxious about inclement weather and highways, particularly the Beltway. But I’m pleased with my progress so far, and I couldn’t be happier about my reaction to being stuck in insane gridlock on a recent gorgeous Saturday.

The rush of emotion I felt wasn’t fear. It was frustration. And that seems like a perfectly healthy way to think about driving.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express.
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