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Out-of-Control Car Dreams Are Surprisingly Common

A long dream series explores transportation and travel obstacles in dreams.

Dreams of driving and transportation are very common; in a sample of 1000 dreams, it was shown that 14.9 percent of the dreams contained the word car, and in 7-9 percent the dreamer was driving a car (Hall and Van de Castle, 1966). Cars, driving, and transportation troubles are considered one of the most common dream themes universally, and a typical bad dream theme is of losing control of a vehicle. While dreams of cars and driving are sometimes simply related to waking life experiences, for instance, professional truck drivers more often dream of driving, it seems that "losing control" car dreams are more related to emotional experiences of feeling out of control in waking life.

A recent paper examined a long series of dreams in a single male participant who kept a dream diary from age 22 in 1984, until December 2014. Overall the sample included 11,463 dreams. The analysis of these dreams was focused on transportation, and it was hypothesized that elements of transportation in dreams would be consistent with modes of transportation in waking life across these periods. For instance, if the dreamer was using public transportation or bikes more in some years than others, similar transportation should be more frequent in dreams during that period.

Although the dreamer never owned a car, he did drive and ride in cars but with a decreasing frequency over the years, to about 1 to 2 times a year in the later years of the diary. He also used a bike daily until about the year 2000, and later used public transportation exclusively in 2014. Other forms of transportation were infrequent, such as travel by ship or boat, or never experienced at all, such as by truck, helicopter, construction vehicle, or submarine.

Overall, about 16 percent (1,784 of 11,463) of the dreams included some element of transportation. The most common was public transportation, then dreams of riding in a car, and biking. The analysis also showed that bicycle dreams decreased over the time period, in concordance with the decrease in bike-riding in waking life. Infrequent dreams occurred with submarines, helicopters, carriages, spaceships, and horseback riding.

Of the dreams involving driving a car, 40 percent were "car trouble" dreams, which is quite a high number because this particular individual had never experienced car trouble in waking life. These car trouble dreams are remarkably common in the general population and might involve malfunctioning brakes (you press the brakes but the car doesn’t slow down at all), or the steering wheel not working. It’s interesting that these themes recur in individuals who have never experienced such problems in waking life, and suggests car trouble dreams metaphorically represent waking life stress.

One example of a dream with car trouble is the following:

Volker’s car, whose key I have, blocks parking space, other drivers are searching for parking spaces. I drive the car away to find a new, proper parking lot. But that’s not easy, as many bike racks stand around and the area is pedestrian. The car is hard to brake, a typical dream car. I turn sharply past posts and stop once briefly before two women. I always press the brake pedal with full force.

Another example of a car dream as a passenger that involved danger:

I’m sitting in a VW bus with some other people. Ernst drives. He drives backward through a wooded area that I know a bit. I know it’s dangerous and I’m warning him. But he does not listen to me and continues driving very fast. I open a window and jump out of the car. A short time later, the car crashes into an abyss and explodes. I can feel the pressure wave at the top. There are four dead persons, all male. It is a sad feeling. I think there are others at the top of the abyss.

The frequent occurrence of these car trouble dreams that were not drawn from waking life lends some support to the idea that dreaming is metaphorical, and that out-of-control cars represent a feeling of being out of control in one’s life.

Perhaps another explanation is that car trouble dreams are similar to other dreams where physics and the physical body seem to function differently than in waking life, perhaps because the dream world does not always provide the expected resistance of the physical world. For instance, sometimes dreamers feel unable to move their body quickly, everything feels slower and heavier than expected, whereas other times the body is very light, and may start to float or fly. Sometimes dreamers go through walls easily, other times water feels thick like jelly. The texture and resistance of objects and bodies in the dream world are often inconsistent with the waking world.

Thus, it could be that the absence of pressure from brakes or from steering wheels is due to the absence of the expected sensations of physical resistance in imagination. It would be very interesting to study how waking stress relates to car trouble dreams, and whether car trouble dreams are similar to other forms of dreams where physical laws seem incongruent with the waking world.


Schredl, M. (2020). “Baby, you can drive my car”–Means of transportation in a long dream series. International Journal of Dream Research, 56-61.

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