Quelling anxiety across the Chesapeake
STEVENSVILLE, Md. -- On stormy days, it is difficult to see the shore from the halfway point. The bridge, arcing high into the air, has tall ships passing beneath. Its guardrails look like split-rail farm fences, revealing a dizzying drop to choppy waters.
Driving over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge stirs fear in the hearts of no small number of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., residents, an anxiety that resumed its seasonal peak over the Memorial Day weekend and the start of the annual pilgrimage to the beach towns and quaint sailing harbors of the Eastern Shore.
"Everyone talks about the fear of crossing the bridge," said Carolyn Casey, who lives in Washington with her family and has a second home near St. Michaels, Md., across the bridge.
On Friday, she pulled her silver Lexus SUV to the side of the road before the western end of the bridge, which stretches more than 4 miles. The passenger seat was piled with Whole Foods bags, and two Labrador retrievers were curled in the cargo area. As Ms. Casey climbed into the back seat with her 3-year-old daughter and a nanny, Alex Robinson got in behind the wheel.
"When I told people I'd found someone to drive me over the bridge, they laughed," said Ms. Casey, 41, a homemaker whose husband is a consultant. "But it all came out -- everyone is afraid of the bridge."
Mr. Robinson, 27, runs Kent Island Express, which charges $25 each way to shuttle people in their own vehicles across a bridge that Travel & Leisure magazine ranks as one of the world's scariest.
As he drove to pick up one customer, he fielded the kind of telephone call he receives all day. "Do you have a lot of people you drive because they're afraid?" a woman asked, with uneasiness in her voice.
"About 5,800 people use our service," Mr. Robinson told her.
"Whoa," the woman said. "That makes me feel better."
Mr. Robinson's business, which he took over last year from his mother and stepfather after they had run it for five years, has made him an amateur psychologist. He hires only upbeat drivers so as not to further alarm clients. "Their stress and anxieties feed off of your mood," he tells employees.
He knows to talk about anything but the bridge in the 10 to 15 minutes it takes to cross: first, a disconcerting dogleg curve, then a precipitous climb over the initial suspension span; then downhill and over a second span, a cantilever whose boxy sides and roof feel like a suffocating tunnel.
"Most people, when they're nervous, they babble," Mr. Robinson said. "They talk about their first boyfriend. Their kids. People will tell you about their entire life story."
But not everyone. Construction workers have been known to ride in the back seat of their pickup trucks, hats pulled over their eyes and their ears plugged. A woman once rode with a blanket over her head. A man asked to be put in his trunk, an offer that was refused.
The fear of bridges has a name, gephryophobia. Psychotherapists say it is common and often traces back to a panic attack during a particular crossing, even after years of driving over the same bridge without incident.
The bridge, officially the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge, is not the only one with a service to help anxious drivers. The 5-mile-long Mackinac Bridge in Michigan, one of the world's longest suspension bridges, offers a free drivers' assistance program. In the Florida Keys, enterprising college students have been known to wait at either end of the Seven Mile Bridge to drive tourists.
But the Bay Bridge, because of its proximity to major cities -- 366,000 people were expected to cross from Friday to Monday -- is apparently the only one busy enough to support commercial drive-over services.
Fear of the bridge is not limited to men or women, the young or the old, the educated elite or the working class. A driver of a large van for an environmental services company paid Mr. Robinson to ferry him west after a day's work on the Eastern Shore.
"It's the weirdest thing in the world," said the man, who asked that his name not be used because he found his fear embarrassing. After years of crossing with no problem, he had an anxiety attack on the bridge three years ago. A doctor suggested it could be the stress of becoming a husband, a father and a homeowner.
Earlier in the day, he had crossed another bridge over the nearby Severn River without a hitch. "I was telling my wife it just doesn't make sense," he said. "The Bay Bridge just freaks me out. I think it freaks everybody out."