“I feel so much safer when I drive my car than when I fly”


i wish i had a dollar for each time i was told this by a client…. it speaks of the “illusion of control” we possess when we drive our cars.


(I initially wrote this post in April, 2004 on a previous Flightwise.com.au blog. Even though flying is much safer, and cars too for that matter (better able to keep you out of accidents, and better able to protect you in the event of one), the issues the original entry raise haven’t changed much at all. Here it is, with some updating too.

I have no doubt that many people who say they feel safer when they drive their car believe it to be true.

Of course, believing it to be true doesn’t make it so…that’s a form of magical thinking developmental psychologists observe when they speak with adolescents about their lives. It’s usually when thinking, or to use its psychological term, cognition, shifts from the style of a young child to one more resembling adult thinking.

So when I hear someone say they feel they are safer driving than flying, I don’t argue – it’s their feelings after all and I take them at their word.

Usually, I wait until clients bring up the “driving versus flying” dynamic, which happens at some point of treatment. I often allude to it during the very first session, or even on the phone when I make the first appointment, and do a mini-assessment on the phone or by email. I also usually ask about other fears, like trains, ships, bridges, heights, enclosed spaces, open spaces and so on…(In another section on this site, I explain a little more how I work, and why I take referrals myself, rather than though a secretary or receptionist.)

Often, I hear clients say that they are OK if they themselves do the driving, but become nervous passengers if someone else does the driving. This clues me in to issues of control, or more accurately, what it could mean for them to give up control. I make a mental note of it to consider as a hypothesis to assess more thoroughly later, when the time is right, and the client has “cued” me to do so during our conversation.

What I will do when the “car versus plane – driving versus flying” discussion arises is see it as a great opportunity. I get to assess how the client understands statistics (and where they obtain these figures), I get informed about some of their thinking or cognitive style, and it give me a potential entre to help do some effective cognitive and emotional change.

Now you might say, “Ok – please explain all that!” And now I will…

1. “Feel” statements, e.g. “I feel driving is safer than flying because I feel in control.

My response: When I hear this statement or a variation of it, I usually ask, with some curiosity, “Do you mean you feel it or you believe it?

What I am doing here is inviting the client to separate feelings from thoughts, in the sense that the same thought can give rise to different feelings depending on context, new understandings, different emotional states, and a variety of situational cues. And it works in reverse, in that the same feeling can give rise to different thoughts in the same way.

In other words, thoughts don’t give rise to the same feelings, and feelings to the same thoughts – other situational factors come into play.

So when I hear someone say I feel safer when I drive than when I fly, I ask (again with curiosity) if they really mean it to be a feeling or they have facts or evidence (either personally-derived or from some important source). Working with facts turns about to be easier in most cases than working with feelings.

My task then is to understand how clients see the difference – if they do – between feelings and thoughts (or beliefs). I may even ask for clarification: “Do you mean you feel safer, or that you know it is safer (to drive)?”  By asking it this way – as an either/or – I am hoping to press home that feelings and thoughts, while connected, are not one and the same.

If thoughts or beliefs can change, then possibly feelings, and associated distressing physical symptoms and signs, can too. And if physical signs and symptoms can change, then feelings and thoughts can also change. That’s the theory anyway!

2. In practice, clients who discuss the car vs plane comparison lead themselves down a certain path which can be unhelpful to overcoming their fears.

Because this comparison is very much rooted in issues of personal control, gently disabusing people of their cognitive bias must be done very carefully and painstakingly. I might, in an appropriate context, discuss how I had been at the airport recently and watched the rhythm of aircraft during a turnaround, the period when an arriving aircraft becomes a departing one. The aircraft sits there while all around it a balletic sequence of equipment and staff service and prepare her (aircraft, like ships, are usually referred to in feminine terms, perhaps because for so long their captains were male!)

I usually mention how I watch for one of the flight crew to descend down the jetway stairs, and begin their walkaround, inspecting the aircraft with eyes and hands in a careful and consistent routine they first learnt as novice flyers perhaps 40 years ago. (This is where I might introduce the term “good airmanship” into the sessions, in preparation for other safety-related discussions to come).

Then I casually ask them when they last checked their car’s tire pressure and condition, or engine oil, or brakes (other than driving to see me). And, if they remain in good humour (most do) if they will now check these things at the end of their session with me.

Of course, most say that aircraft are far more complicated than cars, and it’s not the same thing. But I think that once the point is made – that they take the condition of their car for granted – it makes the next more challenging discussion easier to digest.

A more challenging scenario

And that is that there are literally teams of mainly invisible people who take pride in making flying safe. Now this discussion can go in all sorts of directions – about engineering and design, flight testingmaintenance schedulesMinimum Equipment Lists, cabin crew training, and air traffic control (to mention but a few – and only a few!)

I might ask, to continue the client’s desire to compare cars and planes (now you see why I don’t usually bring up the conversation first), if the client has undertaken advanced training in defensive driving to handle tire blow-outs, dogs or children racing onto the road, or engine seizures, all rare but possible events in one’s driving career.
And then I might mention the frequency of pilots training in simulators every six months to maintain licensure (how would you like to be tested not just for competence but emergency handling of your car, every six months?).

And I might show a video of a really challenging simulator session for a commercial pilot to check their current status. But I usually wait a few sessions before doing this, when I believe the client can better accommodate seeing pilots training to handle emergencies they will rarely if ever handle during their career. No use having clients believe they are training for daily events!

In some cases, when I detect a client is rather cavalier about safety, I may even let out a little whistle, and ask how they feel taking their kids in the car when it doesn’t get a thorough “walkaround” each time – but that’s something I will only rarely suggest, since it can so easily place people on the back foot (an Aussie cricketing expression for being defensive).

But I will say that even if they were to do a daily walkaround, and take a defensive driving course, the best they can do is maximise the chances they will not cause a collision or incident. Yet – what of other drivers who may be only a few feet from them each time they pass? At least in commercial airspace there is a good to excellent chance that all pilots are licensed and tested regularly in reliable aircraft, which are kept separate by professional air traffic controllers (I always talk of ATC being about separation issues, which usually gets a smile from clients who are also therapists).

In other words, I am hoping to engage the client into thinking their belief they are safe by virtue of feeling in control of the car – ie., they are at the controls of the car – is open to being challenged. I may speak with reference to it being an illusion of safety and control, especially if they consider they share the road with all sorts of other drivers they can’t control. Indeed, many nations around the world spend millions of dollars attempting to reduce road fatalities and injuries by researching this very illusion of control. One explicit aspect of these illusions people hold to be true is that bigger, heavier cars are safer, especially SUVs, but the early data didn’t support this belief. In 2016, SUVs are much safer than before, not necessarily because they are bigger but they now have much better secondary safety warning systems, and much better design to handle collisions.

A site to visit to check your beliefs about safety

Probably all of us could do with a safety check of our beliefs about danger around us. If you want some hard cold science on realistic fears head to this site of David Myers, who asks if we fear the right things.

3. Still not convinced? How about this link which nominates your home’s kitchen for its inherent dangers?

The other issue of control that frequently is brought up (again, by clients, not me) is what to do if they feel unwell or unsafe. I’m often told, “Well, if I feel like it, I can pull over to the side of the road, and in a plane you can’t”.

Yes, true – planes can’t hover in mid-air. They need to keep in motion, air passing over the wings to keep them aloft.

Most people seem to think if their tire blows out, they just pull over, but the truth is that this is quite a dangerous maneuver needing a fair amount of training to do well, and for which most drivers never train!

Of course, you may want to pull over to the side of the road because you’re unwell, and that is fair enough too. In a plane, the pilots can’t just drop you off until you feel better and ready to continue your journey. So if you do get ill frequently and need regular stops, maybe flying is not the best mode of transport. But if you are going more than a few hundred miles, better to get where you are going quickly than spend hours on the road, isn’t it?

Fearing becoming ill on board

No, the issue here is often one of fearing becoming ill, possibly due to the fearful flying feelings, and having to endure discomfort for many hours. Sometimes psychologists will refer to that as discomfort anxiety. And it’s not about the plane, but about what you say to yourself about the plane and yourself. Certainly, flying can trigger queasy feelings in very rough turbulence (I easily get airsick, although I have no fear of throwing up, and it’s never happened. I know it’s to do with G forces and occasional feelings of disorientation on board. I get worse if I am a passenger in the back of a car with limited ability to see around me.) 

Sudden movements can be scary because of the effects of G forces when we expect to be stable. And they can reinforce our beliefs it is scary to be fly even when it is smooth. Bumps, and any resultant “butterflies” drives our feeling uncomfortable up a few notches. This reinforcement process I call a form of “emotional or gut reasoning” where our sensations inform us of our reality, and confirm our assumptions flying is dangerous: “See how bad I really feel when I fly – it must be dangerous!” This is otherwise known as The tail wagging the dog.

There is a time and place to let our bodies and hearts rule our heads – but flying isn’t one of them.

Let me put it to you directly: If flying causes fearfulness, then all who fly should become fearful. That is clearly not the case. If we became fearful of truly dangerous places, against realistic standards of measurement (injuries, fatalities etc) then the most dangerous place on Earth for the average person is …. their kitchen at home.

If working with fears was where I wanted to make a small fortune, and I knew people only ever exclusively functioned in an actuarial fashion (purely on statistics), I should really be running “Fear of Kitchen” classes.
Voila_Capture2016-02-11_10-23-49_AMIf you want to read more about how we human beings are prone to making errors in risk management, one of the best books I can recommend is by Gerd Gigerenzer called Risk Savvy, available at Amazon as a Kindle book. Gerd has written a number of scholarly books and articles about how to evaluate risk and not be fooled or intimidated by feelings. Google or Amazon his works, written for academics and interested non-academics.

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