There’s a bridge in America that causes some people to suffer absolute terror. It’s so bad, in fact, that thousands of drivers need help crossing it. The bridge is structurally safe and used by millions each year. Nevertheless, it evokes feelings of intense dread in many drivers – sometimes to the point of panic.
Connecting the eastern and western shores of Maryland, the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge, known simply as Bay Bridge, runs for 4.3 miles across the Chesapeake Bay. It forms part of two major highways, U.S. Routes 50 and 301, and as a vital transport link, it is often busy or congested.
At the time of its opening in 1952, Bay Bridge was the lengthiest continuous over-water structure made from steel and the word’s third longest bridge. Today, it is known more notoriously as one of the most terrifying bridges on the planet. And looking at its design, it’s easy to understand why.
It’s important to note that the bridge – which incorporates two separate spans for eastbound and westbound traffic – isn’t just long; it’s also uncomfortably high. Indeed, at its highest point, it reaches 186 feet, thus allowing ships and other major vessels to pass beneath. And with only low guardrails to protect drivers from going off the edge, there’s every reason to feel nervous.
Worse than this, however, is the fact that both spans are extremely narrow, leaving very little space between the driver and the edge of watery oblivion. The eastbound span is 28 feet wide and has two lanes, while the westbound span is 38 feet wide and has three lanes. Neither span has a hard shoulder.
Of course, bad weather conditions add horrible new challenges to crossing the Bay Bridge. High winds are common, and heavy rain, storms and fog are frequent in winter. In fact, the bridge was shut down four times between 2003 and 2013 owing to hurricanes and exceptionally high winds.
But while the bridge induces anxiety in some drivers, it does represent an achievement in civil engineering. Feasibility studies for the structure began in the 1880s. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 1907 that a crossing was first seriously proposed. Ferries had been the only way to cross the Chesapeake Bay from the colonial era until then.
Several more proposals were drawn up over the following years. In 1927 local business owners decided to finance the construction of the crossing. However, their plans were ditched after 1929’s Stock Market Crash sent the U.S. economy spiraling into depression.
And while a new proposal for the bridge was submitted from Maryland General Assembly in 1938, the Second World War delayed its construction. Work on the bridge finally began in 1949, then, and lasted three and a half years. Then on July 30, 1952, it was completed and opened to the public.
In 1969 work subsequently commenced on a second, parallel span in order to deal with increasing traffic volumes. Indeed, traffic on the bridge has increased exponentially over the years, from 870,000 vehicles per year in 1952 to 26.6 million in 2016. And it’s expected to increase by another 40 percent in the future.
The second span, then, was finished on June 28, 1973 – and with the work completed, the final structure featured a cantilever bridge, a through arch bridge and a suspension bridge. Steel and concrete were its primary materials – but such sturdiness seems to have done little to allay people’s fears. And although fatal accidents are rare, the bridge has become notorious over the years for inducing panic attacks.
Describing her experiences on the bridge, in July 2015 driver Carolyn Casey told Inside Edition, “My peripheral vision went black. I thought I was going to pass out into oncoming traffic.” Indeed, “tunnel vision” is one symptom of a panic attack. Other symptoms include sweating, tremors and increased heart rate.
For her part, Casey couldn’t stop thinking about awful events such as the collapse of a bridge in Minnesota in 2007. “It’s functionally obsolete,” she said of the Bay Bridge. “There are not even any emergency pull offs. Do you really think that’s going to keep us from going over?”
Another driver, Jay Gaskin, who works as an operator of heavy machinery, has sought psychiatric help to deal with his fears. “They tried to hypnotize me but it does not work whatsoever,” he told Inside Edition. Instead, both Casey and Gaskin rely on a different form of help to cope.
“Nervous about crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge?” states the website of Kent Island Express, a local taxi service. “If so, you’re not alone. Our Bay Bridge-Over Help will let you relax and enjoy the ride and the view.” The company in fact charges $25 a time to drive customers over Bay Bridge in its own vehicles.
Kent Island Express isn’t a one-off, either. The company is one of three in the area that offers assistance to nervous drivers. And according to owner Alex Robinson, nearly 6,000 people use the service. At least one of them, furthermore, has been paying $50 a day for several years to be driven back and forth over the bridge. That adds up to about $13,000 per year.
Believing that the stress of his customers tends to feed off the mood of his drivers, Robinson employs only cheerful people. He also asks them to chat about any subject except the bridge itself. Most customers tend to talk nervously during the 10-15-minute trip, Robinson told The New York Times in 2013. Some of them, however, resort to more extreme coping methods.
For example, Robinson’s past customers have included construction workers who had to plug their ears and cover their eyes with their hats. Another customer, meanwhile, asked to be carried over inside a trunk – but Robinson refused. Ultimately, however, the company owner sees himself as something of an amateur therapist.
Of course, it’s worth noting, distraction isn’t necessarily the best method for overcoming a phobia. That’s because it tends to reinforce the belief that there’s something to be afraid of in the first place. In fact, the classic method of dealing with phobias is systematic desensitization. In other words, gradual exposure to the object of fear.
Certainly, fears of falling off the bridge are largely irrational. A trailer truck did go over in 2008, killing the driver, but such incidents are rare. Still, for nervous drivers, that doesn’t make the experience of terror any less real – or the services of Robinson any less necessary.
As you would imagine, however, this isn’t the only hair-raising bridge in the world. Yes, climbing towards the sky like the apex of a high-speed rollercoaster, the Eshima Ohashi Bridge in Japan may also leave even the most confident of drivers a nervous wreck.
It’s been compared to the topsy-turvy circuit of a Mario Kart race track. The two-lane Eshima Ohashi Bridge in Japan – dubbed the “Rollercoaster Bridge” – is a marvel of civil engineering that puts vertigo-induced terror firmly in the driving seat.
Having given us everything from hydrogen cars to high-speed bullet trains, Japan is renowned for its groundbreaking contributions to transport design. But what was the impetus behind the stomach-churning Eshima Ohashi Bridge, a construction that appears to belong in an adrenalin-charged theme park?
The structure was built to service two cities on the northern coast of Honshu Island. Located in Shimane Prefecture, the city of Matsue – known as the “Water City” owing to its lakes and canals – is a humid, rainy place with a population of around 200,000.
Some 12 miles further east is the relatively small city of Sakaiminato in Tottori Prefecture – the hub of western Japan’s fishing fleets. Its international seaport is vital to the country’s economy and has been trading with the outside world for more than a century.
Between the two cities is the sprawling saltwater lake of Nakaumi, whose name means “middle sea.” The Eshima Ohashi Bridge was built to span Nakaumi’s waters, but there was one big problem: the height of passing ships.
In the days before the bridge, the two cities were served by the frustratingly inefficient Naka-ura-suimon Bridge, a drawbridge that closed for up to eight minutes every time a vessel transited. Motor vehicles weighing more than 14 tons, meanwhile, couldn’t use it at all.
In engineering, the “elegant solution” to a problem is the one that’s the simplest and most direct. Thus the Eshima Ohashi Bridge was designed to climb rapidly to 144 feet, which would facilitate the uninterrupted flow of both ships and ground vehicles.
Yet while it may look hair-raising from the ground, the bridge is extraordinarily strong thanks to its superstructure being tightly integrated into its substructure. It is the largest bridge of its style in Japan and is only trumped in size by two other bridges in the whole world.
Reflecting the inherent challenges of rigid-frame design, the structure was, though, costly and time-consuming to build. Work on the Eshima Ohashi Bridge began in 1997 and concluded seven years later in 2004. Its price tag? Just under 23 billion Japanese yen, or $214 million.
Maintained by the Sakaiminato Management Association, the bridge is over a mile long and 37 feet wide. Yet although it is an impressive and clever example of modern civil engineering, Japanese bridge building is actually an ancient and sophisticated tradition.
Once famously depicted by impressionist painter Claude Monet, the traditional Japanese bridge is a serene and aesthetic construction that echoes the careful sense of proportion associated with the classical Japanese garden. The most beautiful, of course, were built long before the car came along.
One of the country’s earliest surviving garden bridges was built in Kyoto’s Byōdō-in garden in the 11th century. Representing a passage to heaven – ultimately symbolized by the elaborate Buddhist Phoenix pavilion – it’s a far cry from the modern Eshima Ohashi Bridge.
Japan is, then, home to some of the world’s most interesting bridges – and yet the prize for the world’s highest and most terrifying goes to China. The 4,000-foot-long Sidu River Bridge crosses a valley with a horrifying 1,627-foot drop. And in case you were wondering, the world’s second and third highest bridges are also in China.
The highest bridge in the U.S., by comparison, is Colorado’s Royal Gorge Bridge, which spans the Arkansas River from a height of 955 feet. Built in 1929, it was the planet’s highest bridge until 2001; now it’s only in 14th place.
Japan’s Eshima Ohashi Bridge is humble when compared to the high-altitude crossings of China, but it’s certainly captured the public imagination. And if anyone deserves credit for publicizing the bridge’s rollercoaster incline, it is Japanese car manufacturer Daihatsu.
The last thing motorists want on the Eshima Ohashi Bridge is to stall or roll backwards. So, to demonstrate the capabilities of its Tanto minivans, Daihatsu released a commercial showing the vehicle climbing what appears to be an extraordinarily steep approach.
It wasn’t long before international news outlets got hold of the advert and shared gut-wrenching images of the bridge. Eshima Ohashi Bridge – and specifically its terrifying incline – had gone viral.
Not everything, though, is quite as it seems. The bridge’s approach appears to climb at a horrifying 45-degree angle, but this is actually an optical illusion created by a telephoto lens compressing the perspective.
The bridge’s actual gradients are an easygoing 5.1 percent on the Sakaiminato side and 6.1 percent on the Matsue side. Any average vehicle is quite capable of crossing Eshima Ohashi; no Tanto Minivan is required.
Eshima Ohashi Bridge may not be the crazy Mario Kart ride it appears to be, but it’s still an impressive feat of engineering. Yes, despite the media hyperbole, it deserves a place in the world bridges hall of fame.