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Australia is a pretty big place. There aren’t many people in it. And I know hardly any of them.

So why has claustrophobia been such an issue for me?

It started in the medical sense. Not long after moving here, I took a tour of the submarine HMAS Ovens at the Maritime Museum in Fremantle. Only a few months before, I’d visited exactly the same kind of sub in Sydney.

While I knew I was not cut out for life hundreds of metres below the surface, I found the tour fascinating – not least the tales of the submariner guides, who I admired for their even-tempered nature and ability to cope with a complete lack of privacy for months on end.

But it had been a temperate day in Sydney. In Freo, the thermometer was reaching 40C and still unused to the scorching weather, I hadn’t drunk enough before entering the metal tube.

I was fine most of the way through, but near what would have been the end, I found myself pressed into the curvature of the sub to make sure everyone on the tour could fit into the space. Without any warning, my vision blurred and my legs gave way. Fortunately my husband caught me before I hit my head on anything.

A few weeks later I found myself at the caves at Yanchep National Park. It was another hot day, but I had water and wasn’t going to collapse again, surely? But as I stood with the other tourists in the large ‘entry hall’ of the cave, I felt panic rising in me. I didn’t faint this time, but it was close. I took the tour, but made sure I always stood in the most open space I could.

Worried I might have developed another ailment to add to the tinnitus that joined me on my arrival in Perth, I forced myself to visit Calgardup Cave near Margaret River a few months later. I felt apprehensive as I descended into the dark, but seemed to cope better as it was a self-guided tour. I knew if things got really bad I could take my torch and head for the exit, no questions asked. I was fine.

But back in the city last week, a packed train ride home – the result of industrial action by Transperth drivers – brought on the by-now familiar feeling as my train pulled into Esplanade station, where many of the CBD’s office workers board for their commute home to the northern suburbs. Fortunately I only had to breathe deeply for a few minutes until the train reached Perth, where I got off, leaving a single person-sized gap for dozens of waiting commuters to try to squeeze into.

It makes sense to me that I might feel a bit anxious in confined spaces. Being trapped is a pretty rational fear, as far as fears go. But I have been surprised to find I’ve had similar feelings when space is not in short supply. I felt it when we rented a flat in North Fremantle for a couple of weeks. We hadn’t yet bought a car, our bikes were still in transit and there was nothing of interest within walking distance – just more and more houses and busy roads. Not even being able to pop out for a pint of milk left me feeling horribly trapped.

And recently the feeling has returned. Unable to get a straight answer from the Department of Transport on whether my current driver’s licence – which states that I need visual aids to drive – is still legal now that I can see perfectly, I’ve been using public transport to get to work, and relying on my husband to drive me around at weekends, with my bike on standby for emergencies. But Perth is a sprawling place where often cycling is just not practical, Transperth is less-than-perfect outside of rush hour, and my husband is not always available, so I have not always been able to get where I wanted to go. The ‘problems’ not being able to drive caused me were trivial: a sudden urge to buy fabric to make a dress had to be ignored; a search for new summer sandals delayed. But it did prove to me why West Australians are so attached to their cars. You might be in one of the most sparsely-populated places on the planet, but without your own transport, it can feel as claustrophobic as a submarine.

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On paper, the road rules in WA are not so different to in the UK. They’re so similar that if you hold a UK driving licence, you don’t have to sit another test to qualify for a WA one – you just take a quick eye test, do some paperwork, pay your money and the licence is yours.

But on the freeway in rush hour, I’ve found myself wishing some extra lessons had been compulsory – although I can’t see any reputable instructor actually teaching you to drive like the average West Australian.

There is little, if any, lane discipline. On the freeways, according to the Government’s Drivesafe booklet, you’re not supposed to drive in the right-hand lane except in special circumstances. In reality, however, everyone drives at whatever speed they like in whatever lane. So you have to expect to be overtaken and undertaken, and don’t be surprised if someone swerves across three lanes at the last minute to get onto a slip road.

If you leave a safe gap between you and the car in front, it will immediately be filled by someone who can’t understand why you’re not driving close enough to hang onto the other vehicle’s towbar. And indicating is too often an afterthought.

All this would be fine if we weren’t all driving around in lethal weapons. In 2009, 193 people died in 178 separate crashes in Western Australia. In the first month of 2010, 12 people died in road smashes.

And if I ever needed another argument in favour of high-density living, it would be the number of incidents involving vehicles ploughing into houses. At least living three floors up in my city apartment, I’m unlikely to find a car smashed through my lounge window, unlike this family in Cannington, the Lord Mayor’s parents in Churchlands, or this household in Beaconsfield.

Sometimes there’s a variation on the theme. In Scarborough, a car ended up in a family’s swimming pool, while only last week a car smashed through the window of a restaurant in the city, narrowly missing a young girl having lunch with her dad.

In this sprawling, car-centric city, too often there’s no option but to drive, so I’ve had to get used to it. And on the upside, it made choosing which car to buy much easier – the one with the most airbags.

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