Virtual reality tackles driving fears

Researchers at Manchester University have recruited volunteers with driving phobias to test whether virtual reality can be used to help tackle their fears.

Researchers at Manchester University have recruited volunteers with a variety of driving phobias to test whether virtual reality can be used alongside conventional psychological therapies to help tackle their fears.

The Virtual Reality Exposure Treatment (VRET) will allow participants to drive on virtual roads and confront their fears, whether they might be driving over bridges, overtaking slow-moving traffic or taking to the motorway or dual carriageway.

‘Phobias may develop from a real-life event but the levels of anxiety and avoidance that results becomes wholly disproportionate to the incident that led to the phobia and can become a major disruption to the way people lead their lives,’ said Caroline Williams, who will be carrying out the research in Manchester’s School of Psychological Sciences.

A fear of driving, whether it has developed following a road traffic accident or for other reasons, can escalate into a situation where individuals are too scared to drive at all.

‘The advantage of using VRET is that it can be carried out in a safe environment rather than on real roads, which in extreme cases, could put the volunteers, therapists and possibly other road-users at risk through the adoption of defensive driving behaviours, such as braking harder or going slow on motorways, by the phobic subject. It also helps the person with a phobia to tolerate the level of exposure to the fear as it is tightly controlled,’ added Williams.

The volunteers will wear goggles to transport them into a virtual driving world, while sensors placed on their fingertips and chest area will measure anxiety levels.

The research, which is being led by Prof Nick Tarrier, has been funded by the European Union.