I drove over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and lived to tell about it.
Well, I didn't exactly drive. I used a "drive-over" service that transports those sweaty-palmed people wary of crossing the bridge, which connects the Baltimore-Washington area with Maryland's Eastern Shore. A bridge some see as an engineering marvel — but, for those of us with gephyrophobia (fear of bridges), one of the scariest spans on the planet.
"You've heard that song Jesus Take the Wheel? Let Steven take the wheel," says Steven Eskew, 44, owner of the Kent Island Express. Its motto: Our Bay Bridge drive-over help will let you relax and enjoy the ride and the view.
The service started ferrying the skittish about eight years ago, a task previously performed by the Maryland Transportation Authority. Eskew, who has owned the service for nine months, is an affable sort with a calm demeanor — "I enjoy helping people" — just the right temperament to soothe the jangled.
"Everybody has different issues," he says. For some, it's the height; for others, the way the span turns or the low jersey walls or the see-through railings. Many have what he calls "the Christopher Columbus syndrome. They can't see the horizon. It really messes with their psyche."
A few of the other jurisdictions in the USA that offer bridge-driving assistance:
• The Mackinac Bridge Authority in Michigan provides drivers for free for those too rattled to cross the fifth-longest suspension bridge in the world, which connects Michigan's Upper and Lower peninsulas. For those traveling north, there is a phone at the end of the bridge to call for assistance. Southbound drivers are told to ask fare collectors for assistance.
• New York's Tappan Zee Bridge, which crosses the Hudson at one of its widest points, has an informal service in which the New York State Thruway maintenance staff will escort you across for free if you give a day or two's notice.
• The twin-suspension Delaware Memorial Bridge, which connects Delaware and New Jersey, started a police escort service in the late 1960s that is still in place today. You can call the police communications center or the emergency call box. Drivers must sign a liability release.
Through the years, I summoned the courage to cross a few spans. I made it across the rickety Tacony-Palmyra Bridge into New Jersey as part of a funeral procession, irony noted. I even biked the Brooklyn Bridge (safely in the middle of the pedestrian cross-over.)
But the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, 186 feet at its highest point, remains the most daunting. Seeing the steel and concrete arc against an azure sky from Sandy Point State Park is breathtaking. The thought of driving on a span that has been named the world's ninth scariest by Travel & Leisure magazine is not.
Eskew, who lives in nearby Grasonville, Md., and has spent 25 years in the moving business, has a stable of drivers: college kids, stay-at-home moms, even a Marine Reservist. Each trip takes two people: The main driver slides into your driver's seat and drives your car across the bridge (with you in the passenger seat or back seat), while the second Kent Island Express worker follows over the span in another car (and transports the main driver back).
Eskew has regulars for the $35 each-way fare:
• One gentleman uses the service five days a week, twice a day, to commute from his home at the beach to his job on the other side.
• Another man drives himself across the bridge but just needs a little backup. "I follow him," Eskew says.
• There is an airline pilot who is not afraid of heights; he just gets the jitters driving under the inside suspension. "I could jump off this bridge," the pilot told him, according to Eskew.
The service operates year-round, 24/7, although from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., you need an appointment. You call the number when you leave home and again about an hour before you are ready to cross to arrange a pickup point. Contrary to what a teasing colleague thought, my driver was not sitting in a broken lawn chair at the foot of the bridge holding an airport sign with my name on it. Eskew was in a well-marked van on a service road after the toll plaza and in the parking lot of a McDonald's on the way back.
What is the wackiest thing he's seen? "I had a lady end up in my lap, face by the steering wheel" while her children sat astonished in the back seat. A few grown men sat on the floor during the trip. No one in the trunk, though. "Urban myth," he says.
In the 1990s, I had a beach house in Dewey Beach, Del., and for two summers, I regularly trekked over the Chesapeake without a worry. Until one time, traffic in both directions was routed over the eastbound span. As I climbed over the first twisting curve, an incline, then a disconcerting drop — oncoming cars careening at warp speed by my driver's-side door — out of nowhere, I felt the first flushes of phobia. Heart pounding, brain racing, hands gripping, I sent lasers through the bumper of the car ahead for the longest 4.3 miles of my life.
"Once someone has a panic attack, they don't want to come back," says Jean Ratner, founder of the Center for Travel Anxiety, which serves the Washington, D.C., area. Ratner, who specializes in panic disorders and phobias, says "out of nowhere" attacks aren't that unusual.
She sees lots of clients who have shuttled back and forth on the Bay Bridge for years when "something happens" to shake them. "People will tell me it was out of the blue. But oftentimes, I can trace it to something else." And it could be something as simple as two-way traffic on a narrow span. "Oncoming traffic unnerves a lot of people," she says.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 18% of the population, or 40 million adults, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Specific phobias affect 19 million people, the association estimates, and women are twice as likely to have a phobia as men.Travel-related phobias can take the form of everything from fear of flying to fear of tunnels, fear of driving through construction zones and fear of bridges, according to the Center for Travel Anxiety.
Patrick McGrath, a clinical psychologist with the Alexian Brothers Health System in lllinois, says 0.7% of the population has a fear of driving; 4.5% has a fear of heights; 2.5% has a fear of water — all of which can play into bridge anxiety.
Ratner works with clients on a variety of coping techniques to help them get back on bridges, such as slower breathing and looking just a short distance ahead of you.
If a drive-over service helps, go for it, she says.
Eskew gets it. "I have customers that cry. Some call me on the phone already crying."
Safely on the other side, Eskew recalls the July 2013 incident in which a truck sent a car driven by a young woman, Morgan Lake, plunging off the bridge — ratcheting up the nerves of bridge phobes everywhere. Lake survived. He has tried to contact her. "I want to give her a free ride for life," he says.