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Dec 12, 2005

Virtually Driving: Are the Driving Environments "Real Enough" for Exposure Therapy with Accident Victims? An Explorative Study

Cyberpsychol Behav. 2005 Dec;8(6):532-537

Authors: Walshe D, Lewis E, O'sullivan K, Kim SI

There is a small but growing body of research supporting the effectiveness of computergenerated environments in exposure therapy for driving phobia. However, research also suggests that difficulties can readily arise whereby patients do not immerse in simulated driving scenes. The simulated driving environments are not "real enough" to undertake exposure therapy. This sets a limitation to the use of virtual reality (VR) exposure therapy as a treatment modality for driving phobia. The aim of this study was to investigate if a clinically acceptable immersion/presence rate of >80% could be achieved for driving phobia subjects in computer generated environments by modifying external factors in the driving environment. Eleven patients referred from the Accident and Emergency Department of a general hospital or from their General Practitioner following a motor vehicle accident, who met DSM-IV criteria for Specific Phobia-driving were exposed to a computer-generated driving environment using computer driving games (London Racer/Midtown Madness). In an attempt to make the driving environments "real enough," external factors were modified by (a) projection of images onto a large screen, (b) viewing the scene through a windscreen, (c) using car seats for both driver and passenger, and (d) increasing vibration sense through use of more powerful subwoofers. Patients undertook a trial session involving driving through computer environments with graded risk of an accident. "Immersion/presence" was operationally defined as a subjective rating by the subject that the environment "feels real," together with an increase in subjective units of distress (SUD) ratings of >3 and/or an increase of heart rate of >15 beats per minute (BPM). Ten of 11 (91%) of the driving phobic subjects met the criteria for immersion/presence in the driving environment enabling progression to VR exposure therapy. These provisional findings suggest that the paradigm adopted in this study might be an effective and relatively inexpensive means of developing driving environments "real enough," to make VR exposure therapy a viable treatment modality for driving phobia following a motor vehicle accident (MVA).

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