Wikipedia defines anxiety as “a psychological and physiological state …typically associated with [feelings of] uneasiness, apprehension, fear, or worry. Anxiety… often occur[s] without an identifiable triggering stimulus… [which distinguishes it] from fear, which occurs in the presence of an observed threat.”
Anxiety levels vary from mild all the way to full-blown panic attacks and obsessions. The ScienceDaily website reports that nearly 5 percent of the US population suffers from persistent depression or anxiety while the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada calls it the “secret disease” effecting 12 percent of Canadians “with many more suffering in silence.”
People who have suffered physical or traumatic injuries in car crashes not uncommonly develop ‘anxiety’ about driving. Driving phobia is an extreme level of anxiety about driving. These driving-related anxieties have been studied “relatively frequently” according to the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention. What hasn’t been studied as extensively, however, is the effect of general anxiety on driver behaviour.
The November issue of the ScienceDaily journal contains US research connecting people with high-level general anxiety with more incidents of dangerous driving. The study of 1,120 people with high level general anxiety aged 17 to 55 with driving experience ranging from six months to 35 years, found they appeared to cause significantly more crashes, drove intoxicated more frequently, and demonstrated higher incidences of reckless road manoeuvres.
Study co-author Michael Miesner of the Department of Psychology, East Tennessee State University, said "What we consider to be a relatively minor personality trait, whether or not you have high anxiety, can significantly determine how safe a driver you are." And, said lead author Chris Dula “[We] found … a small but consistent effect in which apprehension translated to dangerous driving.”
An earlier Australian study involving 75 drivers aged 17 to 46 also found a link between anxiety and degraded driving skills. Experts at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) found that anxiety was one of the main reasons why drivers “find it increasingly difficult to focus their attention on where they are going. This inattention promotes a significant increase in the number of car accidents, the scientists [said].” Ides Wong, an expert with the QUT Center for Accident Research & Road Safety, offered the following explanation for the connection between anxiety and dangerous driving: “Being anxious makes drivers unable to fully focus their attention on the road, particularly in urban areas, where there are plenty of distractions and when time pressured.”
The Australian study also found that as driving tasks became increasingly difficult, highly anxious drivers had significantly longer response times. Researchers concluded this indicated that highly anxious drivers maintained accuracy at the expense of response time.
Authors of the US study suggested that incorporating warnings about anxiety into driver training programs, and encouraging people prone to anxiety to seek professional help, would be a good start to addressing the problem for road-users of all ages. "Anxiety is something that’s very easy, relatively speaking, to address," said Professor Miesner. "There’s no reason to not deal with it, and risk driving unsafely."