Barbara Fish Counselling Services ... helping your life work

The Road Less Travelled

Helping Your Life Work

Volume 8, Issue 11

November, 2012

Cutting a swath across the middle of Toronto, Highway 401 has been named "the busiest highway in North America," with "daily traffic sometimes exceeding 500,000 vehicles." [Maier, Hana Long-Life Concrete Pavements in Europe and Canada]. At its widest points, it has as many as nine lanes of traffic travelling in either direction, making its system one of the widest in the world. Exiting onto ramps or merging onto other highways, which crisscross the 401, can be confusing, complicated and challenging.

In addition, Toronto was recently ranked the 5th most traffic-congested city in North America. According to an article in the October issue of Maclean’s Magazine, the average commute is estimated to be about 37 minutes, which translates to "an extra 87 hours a year stuck in traffic." Those who commute from outside the GTA can spend two or three times that.

So it makes sense then, that aside from the rising costs of cars, insurance and fuel and aside from efforts to reduce their carbon footprints on the world, many people in Toronto have decided to limit their driving because the experience has become too stressful and scary.

I personally know 5 very bright, capable and talented women who will not drive on any highway in and around the Greater Toronto Area. When I ask them about it, they tell me that they feel totally overwhelmed by the experience.

In my practice, I have been seeing a number of young, new drivers who have developed driving anxiety. Having been chauffeured by parents for most of their lives, they never developed the need (and as long as they continue to live at home and continue to be driven, the need won’t likely develop). The longer they put off driving, the scarier it becomes. If they learned to drive under the tutelage of anxious parents, they may have learned to associate the driving experience with feeling anxious. Even if they have gone through 30 hours of driver's education, they may have been submitted to 20 hours of in-class graphic horror stories of what could happen if one is not careful behind the wheel of a car. Friends who have earned their licenses earlier than them may have been involved in an accident and they fear the same may happen to them.

Sitting in traffic is not fun for most people, but for those who have developed an anxiety related to driving, it can be particularly distressing. An anxious person is often hatching escape plans from situations they may find themselves in, so being stuck in traffic, where there is no escape can feel very unsettling. And even when the traffic is not the problem, the speed with which the traffic is flowing and the lack of control one has over the other drivers can be equally stressful and overwhelming.

So how does one deal with this? The best method in dealing with any phobia is facing it head-on (pun intended). It is going through a process of slowly exposing yourself to the feared experience and desensitizing yourself to it. It is entering into a slow, step-by-step reintroduction to the practice of driving, similar to the driver reintegration programs designed for those who have been involved in a motor vehicle accident. It is about unlearning the negative associations and relearning new positive ones. Working with a supportive person who can help you relax and reintroduce the experience in a positive way so that the experience of driving can become a much more enjoyable one.

The 401 will always be an incredibly busy highway and our traffic congestion situation will not solve itself anytime soon. But we can take steps to overcome our fears associated with them and gain greater control and independence by doing so.


Barbara Fish, M.Ed.
Personal and Career Counsellor
“Helping Your Life Work”

book an appointment

For more information, or to book an appointment at her Toronto office,
please contact Barbara by telephone at 416-498-1352 or by email at