PTSD following a road traffic accident


Statistically, most people who learn to drive at sixteen will encounter some kind of traffic accident by the time they reach their mid-thirties. And, while many of these are minor, the psychological effects of being in a more serious accident are often overlooked.

Research shows that around 9% of traffic accident victims will develop symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder within twelve months after the event. It’s not just drivers who are at risk, but also passengers and witnesses.

Why might a person develop PTSD after an accident?

A car crash can be a harrowing experience – especially as driving is an everyday activity for most people. Nobody fully understands why some people develop post-traumatic stress disorder and others don’t, but crashes that are life-threatening or fatal carry an increased likelihood of causing symptoms for survivors. Other risks include having previous traumas, losing someone in the accident, and lack of support following the trauma. Nearly one in ten traffic accident victims develop PTSD.

It makes sense to imagine drivers as the main victims of vehicular PTSD, but like any other traumatic event, it can be devastating for others as well. Drivers may often feel a sense of lingering responsibility, whether the collision was their fault or not. Passengers may also become terrified of travelling by car, and find previously simple tasks like driving to the supermarket increasingly difficult.

PTSD isn’t restricted to those who are directly involved. Witnesses, such as other drivers or paramedics attending a crash site, may also be liable to develop symptoms.

What kind of symptoms do victims experience?

A study from the American Academy of Pediatrics showed that not only were child victims of road accidents were at risk, but their parents too – even if they’d not directly been involved in the incident. Twenty-five percent of the children in the study and 15% of the parents suffered diagnostic PTSD. This showed that “PTSD in children and their parents is a common, yet overlooked, consequence of pediatric traffic-related injury with prevalence rates similar to those found in children exposed to violence.”

Many people who feel that their life was in danger during a road accident,  develop avoidance behaviors (for example, not getting in a car, travelling as a passenger, or avoiding certain roads), which in turn can increase the likelihood of PTSD. Avoidance such as this actually strengthens the belief that driving is dangerous, and this thought pattern can maintain your heightened fear response. The avoidance of thoughts and emotions can interfere with the healthy processing of your emotions, which can also increase the risk of PTSD.

As with other forms of post-traumatic stress disorder, feelings of anxiety, irritability, nervousness, despondency, and vulnerability often follow a crash. Victims may experience nightmares, numbness, flashbacks, avoidance behaviours, and interruptions to their previous lifestyles and routines. They may also find themselves unavoidably reliving the experience.

But one of the differences with vehicle-related PTSD is that we tend to rely on our cars, especially in towns and villages which are not well-served by public transportation. Avoidance or cars or certain roads can be particularly troublesome for victims, who may feel that their whole life has changed in an instant.

What to watch out for

Any road traffic accident is likely to induce fear, and as noted by VeryWellMind “it’s very common to experience a number of symptoms associated with PTSD, including:

  • Feelings of anxiety and increased heart rate when you’re faced with reminders of the event. Hearing a horn honk or brakes screeching may automatically activate a fear response.
  • Feeling a little more on edge when you’re driving. You may be jumpy or startle more easily in a car.
  • Being more watchful. You’re more likely to scan your environment for potential sources of threats (for example, people driving too fast).
  • Avoidance. Because of the anxiety that often follows, it’s natural that you may want to avoid some situations or experience hesitation at times, such as driving on the highway.

Any or all of these symptoms may occur which are part of your body’s natural response to a traumatic life event. They’re designed to keep you aware of potential dangers in your environment and prevent you from experiencing a similar event again.

These symptoms should naturally subside over time, but keep an eye on them. If you notice they’re getting more severe and/or more frequent, if you’re avoiding more situations or the symptoms are beginning to interfere with your life, then you may be at risk for developing PTSD. If that happens, please seek some help”.

If you feel that you or a loved one may require PTSD support following a crash, please visit your GP who can refer you for diagnosis and treatment as required.

NICE guidance from 2005 and 2011 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

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REFERENCES: Forbes, Science Direct, Very Well Mind, Mayo Clinic, NHS, NCBI, MEdge, JAD journal, Pediatrics Publications

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