Car wash owners, operators, and staff all have an obligation and a mission to offer the best possible service and accommodation to all customers, regardless of their age, gender, or attitude. But taking care of people and delivering that outstanding customer service can sometimes be a challenge, especially when customers are difficult, irritable, or even abusive.

But what about those customers who don’t mean to be problematic but who genuinely have struggles that may require special care and assistance? What about those who struggle with the very experience of the car wash itself?

According to government and institutional sources, claustrophobia affects between 5% and 10% of the American population with a large variations in the severity of the condition, treatment availability, and the experiences of those who deal with it on a daily basis. For some, claustrophobia is nothing more than a bit of unease that appears up when they step into an elevator or go under a tunnel or parking garage. For others, the fear of suffocation, restriction, and loss of control can cause panic attacks and affect basic decision making, social participation, and daily activity. The latter group frequently can’t handle crowds, continually stand towards exits, and sometimes can’t even stand to have closed doors, closed windows, or blinds hung around the glass. They might not trust others to drive and for certain individuals, even having a person between them and the nearest exit can be an overwhelmingly stressful experience.

And as many experienced car wash owners know, claustrophobia is frequently displayed in car washes. Here’s what it may look like:
  • Customers may be nervous and unsure during self-loading and exiting, sometimes missing the belt, rolling too far, or attempting to drive out of the drying area too early.
  • Some regulars are known to completely recline their seats during the wash, laying flat, closing their eyes, and putting their hands over their faces until it’s over.
  • Others may come into the wash office and ask if a staff member would be willing to take their vehicle through the wash for them.

There are many reliable stories of panicked customers attempting to open doors or windows during the wash to escape the confined space of their car, made more terrifying by the darkened conditions, the noise, and the darkness of the brushes moving over the windows.


Because claustrophobia is so often triggered by darkness and tight spaces, old-style automatic car washes often aren’t a real option for many with the condition. The designs are typically low, narrow, windowless, and very dark—exactly the environment someone with claustrophobia NEVER wants to experience. Fortunately, updated car wash development plans often feature open concepts that address many of the more common claustrophobic triggers.

The Totally Tommy integrated platform and other modern washes can help improve the experience for many individuals. Specifically, the design includes end-to-end windows, an acrylic roof, an exceptionally wide and open car wash bay, dual belt conveyor, and extra wide car wash arches. Because the windows and roof flood the wide bay and open arches with natural lighting customers feel like they have more space and less restriction. The smoother dual belt ride also eliminates the constant ‘bumping’ from the old-style bumpers, so no one feels like their vehicle is locked in place.


For car wash owners, operators, and staff, recognizing claustrophobic behavior and proactively seeking to help, understand, and assist customers can make a tremendous difference.

  1.  Show patience and compassion to ALL customers. Keep in mind that the customer who just missed the belt may be operating with EXTREMELY high anxiety and might just need a friend and a kind word.
  2.  Many claustrophobics are embarrassed by the condition and don’t appreciate it when others press them on it. If someone asks for help taking the car through the wash, help them out with a smile and don’t ask for details.
  3.  If individuals don’t exit the wash properly or are visibly in distress afterward the wash is finished (often parked at the end of the wash, or pulled into the parking lot, or outside of their car) staff have cause to intervene. In these situations, safety is the number 1 concern. Make sure the wash lanes are clear for incoming and outgoing customers and pause the wash if required. If the customer is unable to speak or breathe, 911 emergency response may be warranted. The appropriate incident report should be filed.
  4.  Any customer trying to escape their vehicle (usually indicating a panic attempt) during the wash can injure and damage themselves, their car, and the car wash equipment. In these situations the wash emergency stop should be used immediately and staff should rush to assist, letting the customer out of their vehicle safely as soon as possible. The customer should be escorted to the open air outside the wash. If the customer is unable to speak or breathe, 911 emergency response may be warranted. The appropriate incident report should be filed. Keep in mind that during a panic attack the customer may not be in their right mind. Act with professionalism and compassion as they recover.

Fear shouldn’t keep our customers from getting a great car wash. When building a new wash or working an existing one, owners, operators, and staff should keep claustrophobia in mind and work to make sure that everyone feels welcome and able to access the facility, even if they need a little help to do so.

Tommy Car Wash Systems-

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