The Relationship between Driving Anxiety and Driving Skill: A Review of Human Factors and Anxiety-Performance Theories to Clarify Future Research Needs

By Taylor, Joanne E.; Deane, Frank P. et al. | New Zealand Journal of Psychology, March 2008 | Go to article overview

The Relationship between Driving Anxiety and Driving Skill: A Review of Human Factors and Anxiety-Performance Theories to Clarify Future Research Needs


Taylor, Joanne E., Deane, Frank P., Podd, John, New Zealand Journal of Psychology


This article examines theory and identifies gaps in research related to the role of driving skills in driving anxiety. Increasingly, investigators have examined the clinical features of driving anxiety and the more severe situation of driving fear and phobia, but the possible involvement of driving skills has been neglected. This is surprising given the potential implications for skills training and remediation in the assessment and treatment of some of those who experience driving anxiety, fear, and phobia. The largest body of relevant research comes from the driving and human factors literature on the relationship between anxiety and driving performance. The main theories addressing the relationship between anxiety and performance are examined, with specific attention to studies that have applied theoretical models to the driving situation. The paper identifies the need for further research regarding the relationship between driving skills and performance for individuals reporting driving anxiety. The implications for assessment and treatment are outlined, such as the role of driving task characteristics in planning exposure therapy.

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Anxiety, fear, and phobia related to driving have received increasing research attention over the last decade, especially regarding fears of driving reported in clinical and non-clinical samples (for a review, see Taylor, Deane, & Podd, 2002). A recent pilot study of a non-probability convenience sample in New Zealand found that 8% of a sample of 99 community dwellers reported a moderate to extreme level of driving anxiety and 7% reported moderate to extreme driving fear, using a scale from 0 (no anxiety/fear) to 10 (extreme anxiety/fear; Taylor & Paki, 2008). These rates are relatively high although further epidemiological research is needed to more accurately determine the general population rate of driving fear and phobia. Anxiety and fear are both alerting signals but fear tends to signal a known, external, definite threat and to be experienced as a stronger emotion, while anxiety signals dangers that are less clear and specific (Craske, 2003). The term phobia is more frequently associated with the concept of fear and signals a level of fear that indicates psychological disorder.

In terms of driving, such concerns range from mild anxiety with no avoidance behaviour or other impact on daily functioning, through to severe anxiety and fear, that reaches phobic level and impacts significantly on social, occupational, and personal functioning. Some people describe feeling anxious or nervous about driving in certain situations, such as reversing from a driveway (perhaps because of a minor accident in that situation), while others develop such an extreme anxiety of driving that driving is avoided altogether. This variability along the continuum of driving anxiety is reflected in the wide range of driving situations in which people describe experiencing anxiety or fear. Such situations include motor vehicle accidents (MVAs) or crashes (1), unexpected panic attacks, getting lost, vehicle malfunction, driving in certain unpleasant road situations or weather conditions, errors by other drivers, or making mistakes and annoying other drivers (Ehlers, Hofmann, Herda, & Roth, 1994; Taylor et al., 2002). For some, concern may focus on one of these issues, such as avoiding an accident at a certain intersection, while the concern for others is part of a broader pattern of anxiety, such as panic disorder with agoraphobia or generalised anxiety disorder.

There is growing understanding of the nature of anxiety and fear related to driving and of its often complex pattern of concerns (Ehlers et al., 1994; Taylor et al., 2002). However, an aspect that has not been thoroughly examined relates to the extent that driving skill might play a part in driving anxiety. Driving can be considered a skill which involves many different aspects of behaviour, such as sensorimotor coordination, psychophysical judgement, attention, emotion, and reaction time.

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