The surprising connection between driving and terrorism fears

Gina Roberts-Grey

More than a decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many Americans remain fearful of renewed assaults on our homeland. A new German study published in the journal Psychological Science says that not only is that fear altering the way we drive, it's contributing to rise in traffic deaths on U.S. roads.

According to the study, terrorist attacks triggered unsuspected, indirect change: greater gridlock on American roads blamed on fears of flying. As a result, the authors estimated that 1,600 more traffic deaths occurred than what was expected statistically because of terrorism fears.

The bump in road traffic in New York City made sense to the researchers, as residents there are reminded constantly about the attacks. However, the researchers didn't expect to find that road travel had increased in the rest of the country - and, along with it, potentially risky road behavior fueled by terrorism-related fears.

Risky driving behavior includes:

  • Speeding excessively.
  • Taking chances when merging, changing lanes or turning.
  • Driving aggressively.

If fear of terrorism begins to affect your driving, your auto insurance rates could be in trouble. An accident or ticket could increase your car insurance rates by 20 percent or more, depending on the severity of the claim.

Fear on wheels

Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist and author of "Coping with Terrorism: Dreams Interrupted," says the fear of terrorism differs from other driving fears, like getting a traffic ticket or crashing a car. "The fear of an accident or ticket is familiar and natural to a driver because it's likely a driver has already been in one of those scenarios," she says.

But Lieberman says terrorism features an "other worldly" element. "It's unpredictable and unknown. It is hard for a driver to get his head around what shape a terrorist attack might take and how it could suddenly overtake him," she says.

So whether you spontaneously remember the traumatic, tragic images of 9/11 or something you see or hear triggers bad memories, you could be overwhelmed by fear. And that fear can lead to risky, distracted driving.

Even though it feels like you often have many thoughts in your head at the same time, Raphael Wald, a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist in Florida, says the human mind is capable only of focusing on one thought at any given moment.

"If your mind is focused on fear of terrorism, it cannot be focusing on driving," Wald says.

Just as texting while driving is highly distracting, driving under the influence of fear can impair your ability to drive safely and smartly.

Lieberman says this type of fear is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (a type of anxiety). When you see or hear things that remind you of 9/11, it's possible to become anxious, fearful or agitated. "Something as simple as a low-flying plane, a tall building surrounded by black smoke or an unexpected loud noise on the road jars a driver and takes his mind off the wheel," Lieberman says.

Also, hearing about a terrorist attack on the car radio can trigger fear in a driver and lead to behind-the-wheel mistakes, such as speeding or tailgating, Lieberman says.

Calming your fears

Trying not to think about your fears likely will make things worse, Wald says. "If someone tells tell you to not think about terrorism, you will likely think about terrorism," he says.

However, if you think about driving safely and paying attention to the road, this might help you block fears of terrorism. "You have to fight against your fears that want to be on the forefront of your mind, instead keeping driving safely on the forefront," Wald says.

Prevention before you get behind the wheel can be the best cure.

"Try to decrease stress by meditating, doing yoga, talking with friends you find calming and reassuring, or anything your find eases your stress before getting behind the wheel to reduce fear-triggered distraction once you are driving," Wald says.