Virtual reality and a fear of driving

The fear of driving is not a well known phobia but it does exist. There are people who find that they are unable to drive or in some cases, get in or out of a vehicle due to a variety of reasons. A common reason is a car accident but there are others as well.

This article provides an overview of a driving phobia and how newer forms of therapy such as virtual reality are used to treat it.

The problem with a phobia of driving is that it limits the affected person in many ways. It has a major impact on their home and family life and forces them to curtail many activities that they have previously undertaken. This is especially problematic in our car centred society where cars have become essential for work and play.

Virtual reality treatment for a fear of driving

Someone who is able to drive but chooses not to as a result of an accident can be encouraged to get behind the wheel by means of a driving simulator. They sit in front of a console which contains a dashboard and steering wheel. The console contains a monitor screen which displays driving related images, for example a busy road in a town. The affected person uses the console to ‘drive’ a virtual car along this road.

They are taught relaxation skills and/or coping strategies which they apply if they feel anxious or scared. Their reactions are carefully monitored by a therapist who will proceed once the person is calm and relaxed.

Virtual reality exposure treatment

Another option is a system called Virtual Reality Exposure Treatment (VRET) which has been developed by Manchester University, UK. This takes the form of a pair of virtual reality glasses which are worn by the sufferer and sensors attached to their chest and fingertips. These sensors measure their anxiety levels.

The glasses contain two lenses which display a virtual driving environment. These images show a world as seen by someone who is driving a car which in this case, is the person wearing the glasses. The person is shown driving along a motorway, busy dual carriageway or a town centre where they have to make split second decisions, e.g. braking. Someone with a phobia is more likely to drive defensively than someone who isn’t which is potentially dangerous in the real world but not in a virtual environment.

In a virtual environment they are able to drive in defensive ways, e.g. driving slowly on a motorway as they learn to confront their fears and control their symptoms. These will start to reduce as they become accustomed to their environment and the fear is replaced by a sense of calmness. The idea is that they will lose all sense of fear and anxiety and be able to drive in the real world.

The other advantage of this is safety: this takes place in a virtual not real world so does not place the affected person in danger. This is a safe, controlled environment where they have control over the level of exposure.

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