Cathy McMahon was in her early 40s when she had a panic attack while driving across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The Maryland bridge has a reputation for being frightening. But McMahon had been driving over it regularly since she was 17 and had never experienced even a moment of anxiety despite that it can be found on more than a few “scariest bridges” lists. At 4.3 miles, with narrow lanes, no shoulders, and low guardrails, it connects the Washington, DC, area with the Delaware and Maryland beaches on the Eastern Shore. At its highest point, the bridge spans rise to more than 200 feet over the bay below. As you drive, a gentle curve makes it looks like the road ahead just disappears—that there’s no end in sight.
With her nine-year-old daughter and five-year-old niece buckled in the back seat, McMahon, now 56, says, her “face went numb, my limbs went numb, and I thought I was going to have a heart attack . . . in the middle of the bridge, at the top. I didn’t look over; it just happened.” As her vision played tricks on her and daylight turned to darkness, McMahon, who lives in the DC suburb of Gaithersburg, Maryland, thought, “‘I have to get across without dying and killing them.’ So, what I did was I focused on the license plate in front of me, and that’s all I looked at. I just read that license plate as a mantra the whole time.” Once the steep grade eased onto the flat of Kent Island on the other side, she says, she burst into tears.
A fear of bridges is called gephyrophobia. According to Erin Berman, a clinical psychologist in the Section on Development and Affective Neuroscience at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “phobias are relatively common, with 9.1 percent of adults meeting criteria for a phobia in the span of a year in the United States,” though she pointed out that “the data for each specific phobia are less reliable.” So it’s not specifically known how many people have gephyrophobia.
Each day, between 80,000 and 100,000 people drive across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, with traffic soaring on summer and holiday weekends. Thousands of those drivers are so petrified, they rely on friends or family do the driving for them. Others fork over cash to have a fearless driver take their place behind the wheel and help them get over it—the bridge, that is. McMahon started using this service after her panic attack.
While the agencies responsible for some intimidating bridges will drive the fearful for free, the Maryland Bridge Authority put an end to its service more than 15 years ago. Now Steven Eskew runs Kent Island Express, a private company that shuttles drivers over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and says that pre-COVID-19, it was typical to serve 12 to 18 customers a day. “The bridge doesn’t discriminate,” says Eskew, who’s been driving men and women, young and old, truck drivers and motorcyclists as part of his service for five years. “I have two grown men who will sit on the floor in the back seat of their vehicle, just get on the floor and sit,” says Eskew. He charges $40 cash, one way, for cars, up to $75 for motorcycles, and $125 for tractor-trailers. He has two regular truckers who say the Bay Bridge, as locals refer to it, is the only bridge they can’t drive. “One guy actually gets into his sleeper and just kind of hides. And the other guy can sit in the passenger seat, in the cab of the truck, with his head down.”
In Michigan, the Mackinac Bridge Authority drives vehicles for free over a bridge that connects the state’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas and rises 199 feet above the strait below. Formerly known as the Timid Driver Program, it’s now referred to as the Driver Assistance Program. Bridge staff, who are also responsible for escorting hazardous-materials trucks and maintenance chores, drive up to 10 people across the bridge each day. On windy days, the number can double, the bridge authority’s Kim Nowack says, especially in winter, when winds can exceed 30 mph. “Sometimes people will get underneath the blanket and hide in the back seat. They are that afraid to go across.” Nowak sees the free service as a proactive policy that prevents hazards. Cameras on the bridge can also alert staff to an incident or a driver in the middle of a panic attack.
In the San Fransisco Bay Area, there’s no particular program for bridge-phobic drivers. According to Paolo Cosulich-Schwartz, spokesperson for the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, there just isn’t a lot of demand. The iconic Golden Gate rises 220 feet above the strait that connects with the Pacific Ocean, but, unlike the Mackinac and Chesapeake Bay bridges, it’s straight and only 1.7 miles long. Cosulich-Schwartz says, “If someone is at the bridge, just in front of the bridge, and they are having a panic attack, there is an emergency number listed on both ends of the bridge and people can call [us] . . . We will respond if they are in crisis and they don’t know how to get across.”
Those who treat phobias say a fear of bridges is not only about a fear of heights. Some fear the bridge will collapse, some fear drowning, and some fear they will accidentally drive off. For McMahon, it’s a feeling of claustrophobia: “I can’t get off; I have no way to pull over. I’m up there, yes, but it’s like there’s no way out.” And once an individual has had a panic attack on a bridge, the fear of the panic attack becomes the bigger issue.
The inability to pull over is something that Jean Ratner hears a lot. A licensed clinical social worker, Ratner is the founder and co-director of the Center for Travel Anxiety, located in the DC area. “And that becomes a real hurdle for people who feel like, if I were driving somewhere else and I had a panic attack, at least I could pull over,” she says. “But the thought they would have to come to a complete stop because they would feel that they cannot control my car and what if I am stopping traffic behind me and everybody is furious and inconvenienced because of me? These are people who are not only very responsible, they are pretty public-spirited people. I have never had a narcissist come to me.”
The good news is, “phobias are very treatable,” says the NIMH’s Berman. What’s been shown to be most effective, she says, is cognitive-behavioral therapy, which teaches people strategies to calm down and refocus while pushing them to face their fears step by step. “Learning ways to calm your body down and then attempting to face your fears are the two most important components to working on managing your phobia,” Berman says.
“It’s a step-by-step process which begins with facing your fears,” says Ken Goodman, a licensed clinical social worker in the Los Angeles area, a board member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and author and producer of The Anxiety Solution Series. “The strategy is not complicated, it is challenging, but people can do it if they’re really determined.”
McMahon still has a Bay Bridge phobia, though she has successfully driven over it a few times by herself since attempting shorter bridges first. “I have learned the importance of breathing . . . I have learned the importance of stepping back and realizing that fears aren’t facts.” And if she’s feeling a little too overwhelmed, she knows she has a backup plan—she can pull over just before the bridge and request a driver.
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