Quelling Anxiety Across the Chesapeake

Driving over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge stirs fear in the hearts of no small number of Baltimore and Washington 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 S.U.V. to the side of the road before the western end of the bridge, which stretches more than four 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 during 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, gephyrophobia. 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.

Kathleen Busch, who retired from the human resources department of a Baltimore company, said she could cross carefree “when I could wear a bikini.” Her fear began after she was stuck in the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel for hours. (Experts say the fear of bridges and tunnels are sometimes linked.)

Trying to drive through the tunnel later, “everything went white,” Ms. Busch recalled. “I had a full-blown panic attack,” with racing heart and shortness of breath. “I thought I was going to pass out.”

In the two years since she and her husband bought a retirement home on the Eastern Shore, she has not tried to drive on the Bay Bridge for fear of causing an accident.

The bridge, officially the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge, is not the only one with a service to help anxious drivers. The five-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.