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Bay Bridge Fear Means Business Boom For Shuttles

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Debi Mathews and Bob Spindler, who run Kent Island Shuttle Service, take a break from their travels across the bridge.
Tara Boyle
Debi Mathews and Bob Spindler, who run Kent Island Shuttle Service, take a break from their travels across the bridge.

For some drivers, a close call can change everything. One woman from Delaware, who wanted to remain anonymous, says she used to do just fine while crossing the Bay Bridge to the Eastern Shore until she nearly crashed one day a few years ago.

"I had an experience where someone came over their lane, and I literally thought they would hit me," she says. "Because it was two lanes going one way and one lane going the other way, and I was going towards them, and I swerved and came close to hitting the side of the bridge.

"My legs started shaking, I started to panic," she continues, "and I literally had to like prevent myself from hyperventilating, just stopping on the bridge."

Shuttling people across the bridge

And that's why this woman decided to start paying someone else to do this driving, which is what she’s doing today. She's halfway across the bridge and she is sitting in the backseat; Ken Medell is at the wheel. He runs the company Kent Island Express, and is driving the woman across the Bay Bridge in his sedan. Another driver, Terri Robinson is driving the woman's SUV ahead of her.

"This is about the seventh or eighth time I've used it, and it's very convenient," says the bridge-phobic woman. "I call ahead, and they’re usually here within twenty, thirty minutes. And you have to weigh the cost, and the convenience."

The cost is $25 each way. But there are enough people demanding this service that Kent Island Express and another company, Kent Island Shuttle Service, are competing for business. Medell says in the winter, they do about six to eight drive-overs a day.

But in the summer, "it could run up to 25 to 30, depending on how busy we were," he says.

Dozens of trips, dozens of stories

The Maryland Transportation Authority police used to do these drive-overs themselves, but turned them over to private vendors in 2007 because they were sucking up too much time and resources. It's proven to be a brisk business; last August, Kent Island Express broke a personal record, with 422 drive-overs in one month.

Robinson says all that time on the road, in such short trips with a whole bunch of different people, makes for great stories.

"I want to do a reality show. I think it would be really really fun to do a show about the experiences that people tell us about and the talks that we have as we go across the Bay Bridge," she says. "It's fascinating what you learn about someone in ten minutes' time."

The Bay Bridge turns sixty next year, and it's been unnerving people pretty much since its debut. For starters, there's the length. At 4.3 miles, it was one of the world's longest bridges when it opened. And then there's the aesthetic experience.

Bridge fear a reality for many

"The height of it, the openness to a very large sky, the large view of water," says Jean Ratner, a clinical social worker in Bethesda who helps people address phobias and travel-related anxiety.

She says many people who experience a fear of bridges are, like our anonymous traveler, fine with crossing the bridge. And then one day something changes, and they panic.

"They may be holding their breath without realizing it, they may be hyperventilating, they may become faint or dizzy," Ratner says. "Their hands become very sweaty, and then once their hands are sweaty they feel like they don't have a good grip on the steering wheel."

<3>Tips from the pros

People who live and work near the Bay Bridge, and have to cross it all the time, have their own tips for travelers. Teresa Molnar owns Stevensville Antiques, on the eastern side of the bridge on Kent Island.

"The easiest way to learn to drive it is to go at night," she says. "Because at night it looks just like a highway going up a hill, you don't see the water, you don't see the rail as much."

But people who are still uncomfortable despite the helpful hints are not alone. Among the many thousands of people on the bridge this holiday weekend, there are be dozens -- maybe more -- who opt to hand the wheel over to someone else.

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