The Irony of Road Fear

Author Jeff Wise is out with a new book called Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger. I quite enjoyed the book (and, full disclosure, he is a friend), so I asked Jeff to shed a little light on how fear affects our lives as travelers. His thoughts are below.

The Irony of Road Fear
By Jeff Wise

Jeff Wise Jeff Wise

It’s nearly upon us: the centenary of America’s first coast-to-coast road, the Lincoln Highway, conceived by entrepreneur Carl G. Fisher in 1912. That means we’re also about ready to start celebrating another major anniversary: 100 years of dreading driving on the highway.

Rich Presta, a Wisconsin therapist who specializes in the fear of driving, says that when he asks his patients what part of being on the road scares them the most, the most common answer is the highway. (A close runner-up is bridges.) In a sense, their loathing of the highway isn’t wholly irrational. Each year, some 5,000 people die in crashes on interstates. But Presta points out that what drives people’s fear isn’t a reasoned assessment of the risks. “Certainly, people do die on the roads every day,” he says. “But the chances of you being involved in an accident on any particular day, and it happening the way you’re imagining it in your head, is pretty darned remote.”

Ironically, the part of driving that people fear the most turns out to be the safest part. Federal transportation data have consistently shown that highways are considerably safer than other roads. (You can see the detailed numbers here.) For instance, in 2007 0.54 people were killed for every 100 million vehicle miles driven on urban interstates, compared with 0.92 for every 100 million vehicle miles driven on other urban highways and arterials, and 1.32 killed on local urban streets.

And here’s an even more striking irony: one of the major things that makes highways scary is also a major thing that makes them safe.

And what is that magical essence? Well, just consider what makes accidents so rare on highways. For one thing, everyone is headed in the same direction at about the same speed. No trucks are pulling out randomly from side streets, no SUVs are throwing on their brakes to make an impulsive left turn. On a highway, each driver’s options are severely limited. And that means it’s much harder for them to create unpleasant surprises for one another.

Now consider what makes highways so frightening. It’s not primarily the prospect of getting shredded by a 75-mph encounter with a Jersey barrier, or crushed by a jack-knifed big rig. No, it’s simply the fact that you can’t get off. Presta finds a similar dynamic at work in his patients’ fear of bridges. “It’s not that people are afraid of water,” says Presta. “It’s not that they’re afraid of heights. It’s that they can’t get off.” They’re trapped. And, just as realizing that you have to go all the way over a bridge can trigger a panic attack, so too can seeing a sign that says “Next Exit 8 Miles.”

“When you’re on a local road, you know you can pull into the next pizza parlor if you really have to,” Presta says. “You always have an escape route, a way to get out.” When you’re on a bridge or a highway, though, that freedom is taken away. You’re stuck. Your control is gone.

As I write in my book, losing control is fundamentally stressful, and it’s an essential aspect of the experience of panic. I personally have suffered anxiety attacks during two periods in my life, and during both of them my only real troubles arose when I found myself in a crowded room and felt like I might not be able to leave if I needed to. As soon as I moved to the periphery of the room, where escape seemed easier, my heart rate would gradually began to subside.

It would be fairly easy to make highways easier for phobics to navigate: just add a lot of places to get on and off. That, unfortunately, would also have the effect of eliminating one of highways’ actual safety advantages. The only way to untangle this paradox is for road-fear sufferers to get treatment. And that, fortunately, happens to be readily available and effective. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been found to be up to 90 percent successful in permanently banishing phobias. That way, we can all both feel safe and actually be safe.


Ah ha, this finally explains why I, as a former skydiver, had an anxiety attack on a commercial airplane when I was stuck in a middle seat between two very overweight men at takeoff. I did feel trapped -- though at the time I couldn't figure out why my heart was racing and I couldn't breathe since I have no reason to fear airplanes or flying.


Perhaps this is also applicable to the Toyota gas pedal situation. Something like 3 documented cases out of how many hundreds of thousands of cars? But the news reports play to people's fear of being trapped in an out-of-control car. You're probalby more likely to be struck by lightning while being attacked by a shark.


wonder if the same for animals- i always thought animal car phobia was somehow related to proprioception- the animal senses it's moving fast, yet it's not moving, causing anxiety over control- perhaps on some level this is our (rational) fear of driving- on some level, we sense we're hurtling through space, but our bodies aren't equipped to control it (other than the brake foot, or the presumption of rationality of the driver hurtling toward you)- i also wonder if Wise has speculated on the percentage of highway accidents that are suicide- people often envision the standard choices (gun, empire state building), but the unspoken one is a buick on route 9


It seems that transportation data is always presented in a way to favor freeways.

Of course you're less likely to be killed on a mile of interstate than a mile of a local urban street because you spend a lot less time on that mile of highway.

Estimate you're going 60mph on the highway, 40 on the arterial, and 25 mph on the local road and the stats look like this:
32.4 people killed for every 100 million hours on the interstate
36.8 people killed for every 100 million hours on arterials
33 people killed for every 100 million hours on local urban streets

Of course you could use different estimates but I think deaths per hour are a more relevant statistic and show that highways aren't "considerably safer than other roads".

Don Sakers

I am afraid of heights and I fear bridges for exactly that reason. The higher the bridge, the worse my fear. I'm happier if it's dark and I can't see how high the bridge is. I don't mind highways, tunnels don't bother me at all. Fear of being trapped has absolutely nothing to do with it.

Mike B

I guess while some people are descended from primates, a few are descended from horses!!!


A lot of human fears are irrational. I know people who wont fly but they have no problem driving on roads where they are much more likely to be killed.


Troy does not live in a major city! Try going 60 MPH in and around Washington DC. I live outside DC, and I often see cars going faster on the local (rural) dirt road than on the freeways during rush hour.


@4: If I have to go X miles to get somewhere, it's more relevant to know my chance of being killed per mile or km than to know my chance of being killed per hour. It's small comfort to think that taking local roads instead of the freeway will take twice as long *and* increase the likelihood of my being killed.

Your logic only holds if I want to take a Sunday drive of, say, one hour. In that case only, I'm statistcally better off taking the local streets.

My question about the data is about the people being killed. Perhaps many of the fatalities on local streets are bikers and pedestrians. Bad for them, but the numbers might overstate the odds that I will be killed as a driver on a surface street.

Rich Presta

I just want to also point out that from speaking to clients numbering in the thousands who suffer from this fear, another big reason for fear on the highways has nothing to do with statistics but the irrational fears of being "trapped" on a highway, that is, a road they cannot easily exit (similar to a fear of flying isn't necessarily a fear of crashing but a fear of not being able to exit which initiates the fight or flight response).

It's nice to see this discussed.

Rich Presta


anyone that's ever driven the roads in austin, texas knows that the fear/anxiety you experience is anything but ironic.

thanks for the heads up on this book! the sample chapter on amazon hooked me!

Mojo Bone

Daniel makes an excellent point; the severity of freeway accidents/injuries is generally greater for drivers/passengers and involve few to no cyclists/pedestrians. It's also true enough that "rush' hour can mean sitting for long periods of time, going nowhere at all, but I think Troy's post is an exemplar of freakonomic thought, nonetheless. My freeway fears are perhaps a bit more rational- I cringe at the thought of a semi blowing past at eighty mph in the rain, temporarily blinding me with grease, mud and road dirt. But keeping the washer fluid topped off helps, somewhat.


Anyone who has ever had to teach their 16 year old to drive gets this. No matter how well it goes, you are still in a position of being responsible but not fully in control. Now that is a recipe for anxiety.


"just add a lot of places to get on and off". No just add a lot of places to get off: that's after all what bother those with road fear and it isn't the exits that are dangerous ;)

Gunnar Tveiten

Is dead pro million passenger miles really the relevant characteristic for fear though ?

Wouldn't you say, even if rational (I'm not saying fear is rational), fear would be related to risk pro unit of *time*?

I.e. the relevant factor for fear isn't "how likely is it that I die the next mile" but "how likely is it that I die the next minute".

If you compensate for average speed, it seems to me that these numbers indicate that one hour of driving is APROXIMATELY equally dangerous, regardless of type of road.


"Well, just consider what makes accidents so rare on highways. For one thing, everyone is headed in the same direction at about the same speed. No trucks are pulling out randomly from side streets, no SUVs are throwing on their brakes to make an impulsive left turn. "

Someone's obviously never driven through Pennsylvania...


Hey maybe the reason highways are safe is because people are so afraid.


Do American highways not have hard shoulders? Motorways here in the UK do (i.e. an extra empty lane which you're not allowed to drive in, but which you can pull into and stop if you need to make an emergency stop). So you're not completely trapped.

Personally, I don't find it scary driving along motorways, but I find it a bit scary joining them, especially in the dark, because I find it difficult to judge the speed and position of the cars already on it and merge into them properly.


Consider that speed dramatically increases the risk of death. If the death rate per hour is comparable across road type, then there must be far fewer accidents on the highways. So if you fear an accident of any type, stick to the highways. What is the accident (crash) rate per 100M miles, and what is the severity?
What is the rate of accident per piloting-change (on/off ramp, lane change, passing, turn, traffic control device)? I expect this stat shows local roads are worse.

Marcus J

@Rachael: We do have hard shoulders on our highways. If my (very small, non-representative) personal sample is accurate, they are far more dangerous than the highway -- I know two people who have died on highways, both were in the shoulder, not moving, hit by cars that were moving at highway speeds where they weren't supposed to be driving.

In general, accidents are far more likely when there is a large *differential* in speeds -- local roads are much more likely to have accidents because there is a greater spread in speeds; it is common to have a 30 mph (50 km/hr) difference in speeds on a local road, but rare on a highway, though the absolute speed on a highway is much higher. Of course, with a non-moving vehicle on a highway (albeit the shoulder), you're looking at 65 mph (105km/hr) or more differential, which does give some reason to support my claim that shoulders are more dangerous than he highways they flank. This is also the reason why some people were surprised to find that highways became *safer* when the speed limit was raised from 55 mph to 65 mph -- the difference between speeding and driving at the limit became much smaller.