Doctors at an Irish hospital are using video games to help road accident victims overcome their driving fears, it emerged today.
There are thousands of people 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 – patients don’t just play video games. It’s cognitive behavioural therapy and it involves gradually exposing people to different types of frightening scenes, starting off in a very easy way and working up gradually,” said Dr David Walsh.
The almost photo-realistic personal computer (PC) driving simulations have helped accident victims who would previously have thrown up while driving or pulled in every time cars appeared in their rear mirror.
“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,” said Dr Walsh.
Accident victims are seated behind a windscreen which looks onto a five foot-wide projection screen and are given a steering wheel and a gearstick to drive their virtual car.
The trauma psychiatrist is in constant contact with them through their headphones and there is also vibrating technology under their seats to make the experience more realistic.
“Initially the set up was more basic but we have developed it over the past four years to achieve more realism and it has been more effective in reducing anxiety in drivers or passengers,” said Dr Walsh.
He and his colleague, Dr Elizabeth Lewis, have used the sessions of video games therapy to treat up to 100 public and private patients over the last four years.
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 Walsh.
The therapy, which also involves breathing retraining, anxiety management, and how to turn catastrophic thoughts into more rational ones, has allowed around 80% of patients to return to normal driving.
Dr Walsh said the method could be rolled out to other hospitals across the country and added that different video games could potentially be used to treat other phobias.
But he warned of the dangers if the video games were not used properly.
“If you don’t apply the therapy skilfully, you can do patients more harm than good,” he said.