Are you afraid of driving over bridges? It’s more common than you think, says local psychologist

As engineers studied the wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, one thing occurred to Ben Schafer, a bridge expert with the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University: “Most people have some natural trepidation when they’re driving across a large span bridge.”

Schafer said that for some, waking up to the news of the Key Bridge collapse likely fed “into a fear that they’re already dealing with.”

Schafer said the public should know that engineers, bridge designers and maintenance professionals view their job as a “solemn responsibility” to ensure the safety and soundness of infrastructure used every day. He added that the profession works to learn from failures like the one that led to the collapse of the bridge.

That trepidation can be addressed with therapy or using drive-over services on bridges that are known for causing anxiety. Yet, the bridge expert wants people to trust that engineers have their best interests in mind while building a long bridge.

Psychologist weighs in on ‘gephyrophobia’

Abigail Marsh, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Georgetown University, said she’s sympathetic to Schafer’s concern about fears of crossing bridges being exacerbated by the bridge collapse in Baltimore. However, her grandfather was also an engineer, so she understands the care and concern needed to build a bridge.

Marsh said some amount of anxiety around bridges is reasonable.

“So many of the kinds of things that we tend to fear are the result of evolutionary pressures that make us sensitive to certain kinds of danger,” she told WTOP.

Marsh said the fear of bridges manifests itself through a fear of heights. While many people experience some level of anxiety or fear of going over bridges, some have crippling phobias.

“The difference between having a fear and a true phobia is that only true phobias interfere with your ability to function and cause significant distress,” said Marsh.

Among the solutions to deal with the type of phobia that leaves people simply unable to drive over a bridge is some form of treatment, either through behavioral or cognitive behavioral therapy. Both forms are seen as the “gold standard approach” in combating the fear, the professor said.

Through therapy, a client is taught to relax on cue. They then take that skill to confront the object causing the fear. A patient might start imagining themselves on a bridge or looking at photos of tall bridges, Marsh said. They may eventually walk over the overpass or, in some cases, drive over it.

Failing to address the phobia can actually create a situation where the fear is reinforced, she said.

Most people can successfully overcome those fears with therapy, but there are more immediate solutions. In some areas, a bridge authority may provide a service or access to a business that can transport you across the structure, known as drive-over services.

“You can ride as a passenger with your eyes shut, imagine that you’re somewhere else while a professional drives your car across the bridge, which I think is a wonderful service,” Marsh said.

More on the Key Bridge collapse in Baltimore

The solution for those who fear the Chesapeake Bay Bridge

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge has been the subject of lots of social media posts and even YouTube videos, with some dubbing it “the scariest bridge in the world” or “America’s scariest bridge.”

Many drivers experience such severe fear that, at one time, Maryland provided a drive-over service. Until 2007, the Maryland Transit Authority Police would escort nervous drivers over the bridge before the service was dissolved.

Several businesses cropped up to fill the void, including the Kent Island Express: Bay Bridge Drive Overs.

Steven Eskew operates the business that, pre-pandemic, provided an average of 7,000 trips a year. Post-pandemic, Eskew told WTOP he’s closer to just over 5,000 trips a year, although business is ticking up.

Drivers call Eskew’s business about an hour before heading to the bridge and if they’re eastbound, they give a second call before approaching Annapolis. The meetup point is a weigh station that’s provided in cooperation with the Maryland Transit Authority.

“And then we just get into their vehicle. They get into their back seat or the passenger seat, whatever they’re comfortable with,” he said. “We drive them across and drop them off at a safe spot on the other side.”

Eskew said there are regular customers who depend on the service, using his business up to 1-3 times a week. Then there are seasonal travelers who may have heard about his company’s services in advance and use them once or twice a year.

Then, there is a third type of customer who drives up to the bridge and stops before attempting to cross. In those cases, Eskew’s business may get a call from police or workers for the Maryland Transportation Authority Police who service the bridge to meet the driver.

“They’ll have a panic attack, and 99% of the time, we can help them,” he said.

Eskew said there are different reactions from drivers depending on which direction they’re headed. When heading eastbound to the beaches, there are concrete barriers and a curve on either side of the bridge. Some people don’t like not being able to see over to the other side of the overpass, he said.

“I kind of coin that ‘the Christopher Columbus fear’ because people have the sense that they’re going off the edge,” he told WTOP.

The westbound trip is harder for other drivers to manage because the barriers are relatively low.

“I think it’s beautiful, but people are very uncomfortable” with the unobstructed view, Eskew said.

Once drivers know they don’t have to be behind the wheel, some preferences still stand out. Some enjoy taking in the view without the stress of driving, while others would cover themselves up and hide while crossing the Bay.

Eskew’s wife even came up with a creative addition to the service; she made sleep masks for customers so they could “just sit back and enjoy the ride,” he said.

In some cases, customers may take the wheel themselves, while Eskew and others sit on the passenger side and talk to them while they cross the bridge. He said it provides a distraction but can be tricky as some have panicked during the drive.

The type of vehicles differs, too, but Eskew says his business has transported tractor-trailers and motorcycles across the bridge.

“We even offer a bicycle service,” he said.

For cyclists, the issue isn’t fear, he said, but rather that the state doesn’t allow bikes to cross the bridge, so riders who want to get to the Eastern Shore need a way to get their bikes over.

“The bridge does not discriminate,” Eskew said. “If you don’t like driving the bridge, it is what it is.”

Eskew’s clients vary in gender, ages and professions, with the majority between the ages of 40 and 60. Airline pilots, psychologists, firefighters — anyone can experience the kind of fear that makes a $40 charge to have someone else do the driving worth it.

The fear can also crop up from nowhere for people who’ve lived in the area and driven back and forth to the Eastern Shore since they were old enough to drive. Eskew said he hears that a lot.

“They’re just uncomfortable with the drive,” he said. “Something just clicks … and it just happens.”

While he’s not up to pre-pandemic numbers, his business did tick up after places reopened because of the stress of driving the Bay Bridge. Relieving that stress is what his business is all about.

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Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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