For most Washingtonians, the biggest worry about driving to the beach is Bay Bridge traffic. But Terri Robinson has gotten to know a different type of beachgoer—one who is paralyzed with fear by the sight of the bridge’s sweeping twin spans.
A driver for Kent Island Express, Robinson has shuttled thousands of drivers over the four-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which whisks cars 186 feet into the air as they cross the Chesapeake to get to and from Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The bridge was named one of the ten scariest in the world by Travel & Leisure magazine.
“We’ve taken airline pilots, raceboat drivers, policemen, firefighters,” says Robinson. “We took a couple who were both in the Navy—neither could drive over the bridge.”
Ken Medell launched the service in May 2007, around the time the Maryland Transportation Authority stopped offering free rides over the bridge. Medell charges $25 each way and has a fleet of eight drivers. Kent Island Express gave more than 3,000 rides last year—about six to ten a day in winter and 10 to 20 a day in summer.
What makes the bridge so terrifying? “For some it’s the height,” says Medell. “For some it’s because there’s no shoulder and there’s nowhere to go if they want to stop.”
A lot of drivers don’t like the low railings, which offer views of the water below. Robinson says many people tell her the bridge’s turn is the worst part. “They’ll say, ‘I feel like I’m going to fall off the earth.’ ”
Even drivers without a fear of bridges—gephyrophobia—can feel anxious when one of the spans opens to two-way traffic. Says Medell: “All you have to do is look away for a second and you could be in a head-on collision.”
Medell once had to drive a tractor-trailer over the bridge because its driver was too scared. “He literally handed his rig to Ken and got in my car with me,” says Robinson.
Many customers tell them their fear has gotten worse with age. Says Robinson: “At least half say, ‘I used to drive this bridge all the time, and then one day I had a panic attack and I can’t drive it anymore.’ ”
Medell estimates that 5 percent of people he drives want to sit in the back seat. Every so often, someone will put a coat or blanket over his or her head.
He did draw the line for one customer, who asked to be put in the trunk: “I had to tell him that was against the law.”
This article appears in the August 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.
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