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The Road Worriers : Fear of Freeways Needn’t Bedevil L.A. Drivers

Times Staff Writer

With car keys in hand, inhale to the count of six, exhale on eight. Again. Now strap on your seat belt and imagine a warm, smog-free ray of sunlight flooding your insides. Let it shield your hands on the steering wheel and bathe your foot on the brake. Let it form an imaginary industrial-strength bubble around your car. Now go out there and drive--conquer that concrete mass of 31 spiraling freeways, 1,801 miles of highway traveled daily by 5,755,829 voracious vehicles!

Welcome to the Los Angeles terror of the Tarmac, which for weeks now, Jo Galloway, a driver for more than 30 years, has been trying to tame with this very L.A. ritual. She repeats it before revving up her 1983 beige Oldsmobile.

Five months ago, her husband, who had handled all the freeway driving, died. “I realized I had to learn to drive the freeways on my own, even though I’ve always had a tremendous fear of them,” she says, explaining why she consulted driving therapist Sy Cohn of Venice. With his help, Galloway now braves the roar and the grind of gridlock to live a fuller, more complete life, heading out to Malibu and beyond via the Santa Monica Freeway.

To live in Los Angeles--whether native or newcomer--you must drive. But you don’t have to drive yourself crazy doing it or thinking about it, say phobia experts who have studied the woes of Los Angeles’ road warrior wanna-bes. From enrolling in metaphysical- to clinical- to refresher-driving classes, thousands of uptight and downright nervous L. A. residents are trying to cope with driving in this car-crazy city. They sweat to make freeways their friends and surface streets their pals.

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Galloway, who is slowly overcoming her freeway phobia, isn’t alone in her quest to endure life in the stress lane. Like others, the 50-ish woman is fed up with being shut-in in her home because of the panic that sets in the minute she backs out of the driveway.

Sherman Oaks resident Martha Lucia Gonzalez is mad and tired of three-hour bus rides to get anywhere from her apartment. So at 33, Gonzalez, who has always been “scared to death” to drive in Los Angeles, is learning how “so I don’t have to live my life like a prisoner.” A job also awaits her in Pasadena, and a car is a must.

Private Lessons

Driving also is a must for Minako Larsen, a 43-year-old teacher who began taking private lessons two months ago in this, “my year of liberation from freeway phobia.” She always has lived near her job so she could walk to work. Two weeks ago, she passed her driving test. Now she’s car shopping and not even the pain of a $4,000 insurance policy will keep her from fulfilling a lifelong dream: victory over her driving fears in Los Angeles.

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Others are waging their own battles to overcome the near paralysis that prevents them from steering a car onto a freeway ramp or handling simple errands like driving to the neighborhood cleaners.

Jean Sturgis, 62, had a driver’s license for 35 years but never motored more than a few blocks from home and “never, never, never got on the freeways” because her husband took her everywhere. These days, thanks to treatment, Sturgis is bee-lining it to the beach in an effort to become more self-reliant.

Gary Reyes, 35, was petrified of even being a passenger in a vehicle until three months ago, when he sought psychological help. Today, through counseling and hypnosis, he drives to and from work on surface streets and feels better about freeway traffic.

Transplanted New Yorker

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Andrew Williams, 40, is a transplanted New Yorker who never needed to drive until he moved here almost a year ago. He had relied on buses and his wife to chauffeur him to and from work and elsewhere. By October’s end, his goal is to get his license, thanks to private lessons and encouragement from family and friends.

Frank Martinez, 28, a native Angeleno, is undergoing psychological counseling to arrest “the anxious, nervous feelings” he has experienced for three years every time he enters the freeway zone. “I needed help because I don’t want to be the cause of an accident,” he says.

Then, there are newcomers like Fernando and Martha Ramirez, recent Southland transplants from the wide, open highway spaces of Texas. For the Ramirezes, learning how to maneuver the Los Angeles freeway system has been an ordeal to write home about.

Mrs. Ramirez, a former television talk-show hostess, says the onslaught of cars “coming in what seems to be every direction” has been scary enough to keep her from not venturing beyond her mailbox. Recently, she had to drive home from the airport while following her husband. She had to pull off to the side of the road for controlled-breathing exercises and to gather her wits.

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Her husband, area manager for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, has fared better, though sometimes “the big muscle of mass out there is very stressful and almost dehumanizing. This traffic here requires a higher level of attention than what I’m used to,” he says. “Back in Texas, I could glance at the golf course, stop and help a person stranded on the freeway. Here, I have to be vigilant in terms of what is happening in my lane.”

He never hits the road without making sure of three things: that he has a full tank of gas, emergency cash in his pocket, and that his compact car, mechanically, is “up and ready for survival.”

‘Nothing Compares’

New resident Paul Skermetta has experienced similar feelings, adrenaline and all. He has lived and driven in Biloxi, Miss.; New Orleans; Wichita, Kan.; Dallas and Houston. “But nothing compares to driving in L.A.,” he says. “I was born here, but left the city as a child. It’s great to be back, but where, oh, where did all those cars come from?”

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For now, he says, driving surface streets suits him just fine. “Eventually, I know I’ll feel much better about driving in L.A.--once I’ve got the driving patterns and freeway system down pat. But I don’t want to rush something I’m not too comfortable with yet. It’s crazy out there.”

Driving coaches agree that the best way to put the brakes on freeway fears--which can result in panic attacks, hyperventilation and worse--is to take it slow and gradually build up to an asphalt assault. Experts--many who have counseled clients in driveways, sung to them to make em feel better while driving and led and followed them home in separate cars--say there is hope for freeway phobics.

“We’ve seen everyone from lawyers to doctors to corporate executives who are completely hamstrung by fears of driving in L.A.,” says L. Jerome Oziel, USC associate professor of psychiatry who has studied and treated driving phobias for 18 years. “In a word, they are terrorized.”

Oziel and others agree that thousands of Los Angeles newcomers develop freeway phobias after arriving. They are shocked by the constant flow of traffic--slow and fast and unpredictable.

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“They have some real frightening experiences on the freeways and streets here,” Oziel says. “First, the freeway system in L.A. is overwhelming in the sense that the rapid speed of traffic can cause people to develop a fear of being hit, injured or killed.”

As a result, he says drivers unused to big-city traffic tend to avoid freeways altogether, preferring streets that can take two or three times longer to take them to their destination.

sh ‘Avoidant Life Style’

“Some of these people, as well as long-timers in L.A. who stay off the freeways, develop an avoidant life style. They build their lives around avoiding the freeways. They lie to friends about driving the freeways and make excuses to vacationing visitors as to why it’s taking them much longer to get somewhere,” he says.

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These drivers take longer routes on lesser-traveled streets because they have developed a fear of even major streets such as Sunset and Wilshire boulevards, he says, adding: “Their fear has allowed themselves to get swept off the streets or not be able to escape the traffic flow.”

Dr. Benjamin Crocker, a phobia expert, says when driving fears go unattended, they can contribute to greater problems, such as agoraphobia, a fear of being in open spaces. When freeway phobia has reached this point, it’s time for professional help.

Crocker says it’s not uncommon for experienced drivers, especially those who have driven in cities where one freeway or no freeways were necessary to get around, to experience pangs of freeway phobia. He says the key to being a happier driver is to make the freeway a friend; to take a refresher driving course; or seek counseling. He also recommends the fearful avoid the rush-hour crush, which runs from 6:30 to 9 most mornings and from 3:30 to 6 in the afternoons.

“You can begin to overcome this fear by realizing that getting on the freeway and major streets is a convenient way to get around L.A.,” he says. “You don’t have to get out on the freeway and act like a savage on this pathway through the jungle. You do have a choice to slow down and drive safely.”

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Dennis Rowe, traffic safety specialist with the Automobile Club of Southern California, an AAA affiliate, tells callers fearful of driving L.A.'s freeways that it’s safer to go with the freeway flow than to be stuck in surface streets’ bumper-to-bumper crunch. Fewer fatalities occur on freeways than on city streets.

‘More and More Calls’

Still, “in the past few months, we have been receiving more and more calls from people who have become victims of freeway phobia,” Rowe says. “They’re calling because they are concerned, they have had the panic attacks, they want to drive and they can’t because of this thing that is eating away inside them. I can sense the desperation in their voices.”

Rowe says most callers fear getting involved in a freeway accident. They have been and are scared to travel the highways again. They want to know what to do to master their worries.

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In most cases, Rowe and others at AAA refer callers to psychologists, instructors in the telephone book and driving phobia-buster Cohn, a recognized driving therapist who teaches a continuing education course, “Overcoming Driving Fears,” at Los Angeles Pierce College.

For more than 25 years, Cohn, 49, has helped drivers quell their anxieties. For 15 years, he was a full-time professional driving school operator. Later, he combined that experience with a master’s degree in psychology.

“I make house calls,” says the licensed psychotherapist and registered hypnotherapist of his drives to clients’ homes. He sometimes holds their hands as they walk to board a parked car in a driveway. Sometimes they never drive away because the fear to do so is overpowering; so they just sit, talk and visualize driving.

“I saw there was a big need for this,” Cohn says of his livelihood and the one-day, biannual class he has taught for six years. (The next one is scheduled for Oct. 21.) “The freeways have gotten much more congested, there are more pedestrians on the streets, which makes driving a little more unnerving and everyone is stressed out.

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“People in L.A. want a quick fix for their driving phobias. I get people who have had a license for 15, 20, 30 years, people who used to drive, stopped because of the fear and now want to drive again to make getting somewhere faster.”

He says new residents also feel self-conscious about driving in Los Angeles because of widespread publicity about road congestion and the freeway shootings of two summers ago.

“They are too hard on themselves. They beat themselves with worry over the situation and procrastinate getting on the freeway or in the thick of traffic,” he says. “The way to overcome a fear is to get exposed to the situation that is frightening you.” That means turning on the ignition as well as igniting a desire inside you to get over the fear of life in the fast lane.

‘Get Out and Drive’

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“The important thing is to just do it--to get out in the car and drive,” he says. “You can go anywhere in L.A. in half an hour when you’re not in traffic jam times. The freeways do a miraculous job for the number of people here.”

Cohn gets panicky drivers on the road again by eventually getting them out of their comfort zones: familiar streets.

On the Road Again

But first, in his dual-control car, he begins an esoteric approach to less stressful driving, which includes deep breathing, listening to subliminal cassettes, imagining a warm light around the car as a sign of protection, visualizing a relaxed place like the ocean or mountains and announcing an affirmation “to let my energy flow for its highest good.” Cohn even suggests that some phobic drivers carry a stuffed teddy bear with them in the car.

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He then takes them through the city streets honing skills--positioning the car at an intersection for a left-hand turn, watching for pedestrians, handling lane changes and eventually getting on and off freeway ramps, canyon roads and overpasses--always reminding the driver of the make-believe bubble around one’s car and that it’s OK to be among the throng of motorists.

“The greatest stress we get when driving,” he says, “is when we futurize: ‘What if this happens, what if that happens.’ I call it if-it-itis. Too many drivers are obsessed about that. It stops us from confronting the problem.”

They Are Not Alone

He says scared drivers are not alone. But they can learn to live and drive in L.A. if they live more in the now and present, if they visualize the positive and react to driving in that manner, says the therapist whose own license plates read BNTNOW (Be In The Now). “I don’t make any wild claims about curing a person of his or her anxieties or fears about stress and driving, but I can help change a person’s feelings about the environment and make driving more likable.”

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Luis Cabrera, operator of Royal Driving School in Silver Lake, agrees: “Driving in L.A. is a culture shock for many people, especially foreigners who have recently moved here. And the important thing to teach these nervous drivers is how to feel relaxed.”

On one recent afternoon, Cabrera was teaching Gonzalez, of Sherman Oaks, how to maintain her cool as she unexpectedly got on the Hollywood Freeway on-ramp shortly before the rush hour began. (Cabrera never gives students notice about first-time freeway lessons.)

Stunned by the rush of the 50 m.p.h. traffic, Gonzalez, who was taking her third lesson, made the sign of the cross over her chest, then eased into the flow.

“I feel like my heart is going to jump out of my chest,” she said, her hands gripping the steering wheel, her eyes flashing from the rear-view mirror to the car in front.

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“I don’t want to panic, I will not panic,” she said, then took a few deep breaths. Cabrera coached Gonzalez along the stretch of stop-and-go traffic, his foot switching in sync with hers on the gas- and brake-pedal on his passenger side.

Forty minutes later, after passing a three-car collision, two California Highway Patrol officers and switching lanes four times, Gonzalez was off the freeway and headed for an empty parking space to review the lesson.

“My hands are sweating,” she said. “But I feel good. I feel like I’ve taken the biggest step toward total control of my life now. The freeway is the fastest way to move. It’s risky, but if I don’t take the risk in trying to fight my fears, I’ll never move ahead in life.”


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