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.