Thousands of people are injured on the roads each year and up to 15% can develop what is known as ‘accident phobia’.
But now trauma psychiatrists at St Stephen’s Hospital in Cork are using popular video games such as London Racer and Midtown Madness to help them get back behind the wheel again.
“It’s a structured programme involving much more than playing computer games,” said Dr David Walshe.
“It is a form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which includes gradually exposing people to their driving fears in a safe environment, starting off with simple simulated driving experiences, such as driving slowly on empty roads and working up gradually to near-accident or accident situations.”
The almost photo-realistic personal computer driving simulations have helped accident victims who would previously have experienced fear symptoms when travelling by car, sometimes to the extent of panic attacks or throwing up in fright.
“Patients with accident phobia can be a danger to themselves or others, often by driving excessively slowly, driving on the margins, over-reacting to any potential for danger on the road or encroaching traffic,” said Dr Walshe.
Accident victims are seated behind a windscreen which looks onto a five foot-wide projection screen and they drive their virtual car by means of a steering wheel and pedals.
The trauma psychiatrist is in constant contact with them through their headphones, and a sense of vibration mimicking car movements is induced to make the scene more real.
Dr Walshe and his colleague, Dr Elizabeth Lewis, have used the sessions of video games therapy to treat patients over the last four years as part of their trauma clinic.
They published a study in the Journal of Cyber Psychology and Behaviour last year which detailed the experiences of seven patients.
“All seven people had a very marked success rate in terms of driving fears and anxieties and depressions. They were reduced by 50% or more on average,” said Dr Walshe.
He said the therapy had allowed around 80% of patients to return to normal driving.