When the Fear of Icy Driving Conditions Is Too Debilitating to Leave Home

How a Colorado driving school helped a New England woman get over her fear.

February 24, 2015, 4:10 PM

— -- Driving in the winter can be treacherous. Snow, ice and whiteouts can cause pileups, skid-outs and stranded drivers.

Despite this year’s brutal wintery conditions, most of us still brave icy roads, but for Amy Andrews, just the thought of driving in winter causes overwhelming, white-knuckled, debilitating fear.

Andrews’s phobia over driving in snowy or icy conditions is so crippling, just a weather report about a chance of snow, or snow falling unexpectedly, will throw her into a full-blown panic attack.

“This is something that I can’t do,” she said. “If I absolutely have to drive in this bad weather then the whole time I am shaking and I don’t breathe properly and I get lightheaded.”

It’s estimated that about 9 percent of American adults suffer from specific phobias, irrational fears of things from flying, heights, elevators and spiders, according to the National Institute of Health.

“When somebody is exposed to the object they’re frightened of they feel intense anxiety,” said renowned psychotherapist Robi Ludwig. “Their heart can race, they can sweat, they can feel that they’re having a panic attack or a heart attack but it’s basically how somebody feels when they’re in the fight or flight reaction. They really feel like their bodies are in danger.”

More than 2,000 people are killed every year in winter weather-related accidents, and facing that possibility behind the wheel is just too much for Andrews.

She lives in New England, which has been battered by record-breaking snowfall this winter. Her phobia has made normal life nearly impossible. She is almost too scared to drive if there is one snowflake in the air, even forcing her to miss work at her job as a school administrator.

“I have had panic attacks where it just starts snowing, where I will end up in the bathroom hyper-ventilating, ready to pass out,” she said.

Andrews will check the weather obsessively, and cancel plans if there is a threat of snow.

“My sister moved to New Hampshire and I told her that I refused to go up there any time from November to March,” Andrews said.

But Andrews was determined to conquer her fear. She agreed to let “Nightline” send her to a complimentary class at one of the toughest, and most terrifying, winter driving school in the country: The Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat, Colorado.

There, students have to drive on a track made entirely of snow and ice – Andrews’s worst fear – as instructors teach the fundamentals of winter driving, from what to do if your car skids out to having weight balance in the vehicle.

But before she began, Andrews had a rough start. Her car got stuck on an icy road just trying to get from her hotel to the driving school, and she needed to have her car towed up the road. Right away, the first stages of panic set in.

“She was pretty wound up,” said head instructor Kurt Spitzner. “[But] I think we were going to have a positive effect on her.”

When Andrews finally got to class, and started working with an instructor, something did change.

“I think the results were remarkable,” Spitzner said. “Just seeing how she stopped hyper-ventilating a quarter of the way through the class made me feel really good. This is a start.”

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