Virtual Reality and the Treatment of Driving Phobia — Part 2

In the first part of this series, driving phobia and the use of exposure therapy were explored. Both terms were defined and explained in further detail.

The main focus of this article is to share the findings of a psychology/psychiatry study intended to evaluate the effectiveness of virtual reality treatment on relieving driving-related anxiety.

Efficacy of virtual reality exposure therapy to treat driving phobia: a case report” was conducted and written by Jaye Wald and Steven Taylor. Both researchers are from the University of British Columbia.

Background Information

Wald and Taylor define driving phobia as an “intense, persistent fear of driving” that is seen by the affected person as irrational but insurmountable.  The researchers mention that the phobia is more common in women and usually develops after a car accident. Driving fear can also be linked to the existence of an anxiety-related mental health condition, such as agoraphobia.

Wald and Taylor discuss some of the issues that occur in traditional exposure treatment of driving phobia.

For one, people undergoing the treatment may be in actual danger behind the wheel because of their nervousness. The therapist cannot necessarily control the conditions on the road, which can interfere with planned treatment.

Another obstacle to successful treatment with “in vivo” (real life) exposure is that driving phobics can feel embarrassed and like the’re being judged when practicing in public. Being honked at or yelled at by other drivers can be harmful to treatment by heightening anxiety and creating more negative associations with driving.

Treating a Woman with Driving Phobia

Wald and Taylor followed the treatment of a 35-year-old woman who had driving phobia for twenty years. Initially, she was unable to drive by herself or with others.

The driving phobic woman was prescribed virtual reality treatment. Her progress was overseen by a therapist. A highly realistic driving simulator complete with a steering wheel and pedals was used. The simulator included special features which could  re-create various weather patterns and driving situations.

The driving phobic rated certain driving situations as highly distressing for her. She was asked to practice some of these anxiety-inducing situations with the simulator. For the simulation, she was instructed to try driving in a residential area, driving in a school zone, and driving on the highway.

After each practice session, the woman reported the anxiety she felt on a predetermined scale. She repeated each driving scenario until her anxiety levels were low, then she moved up to a more stressful scenario. Eventually, she was able to complete all the driving situations in the simulator with markedly less anxiety.

Three months after her treatment, she was able to maintain her reduced driving fear. Seven months after treatment, she was able to take more frequent car trips by herself and with others. She learned to drive for everyday purposes to various settings, indicating a much higher level of functioning. This shows that the woman had almost entirely overcome her fear of driving after the virtual reality treatment.