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Help for Gephyrophobes - 2002-10-26

For many people, driving across a bridge is chance to enjoy the view from a different perspective. But for those who suffer from gephyrophobia, crossing a bridge is a terrifying experience. Mary Saner introduces us to an unusual team, dedicated to helping people cross the bridge when they get to it.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge is a little over six and a half kilometers long. Rising to almost 60 meters above the Chesapeake, the Bridge connects the eastern and western shores of Maryland.

"I'm sure if I tried to drive over it, I'd fly off it or fall off the edge. One or the other. I start getting a panic attack the minute I see the sign that says 'Last Exit'," says Susan Jimenez. Each Monday, she needs to cross the Bay Bridge to get from her home in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware to her job in McLean, Virginia, where she'll spend the week. Each Friday, she makes the return trip across the Bridge. But luckily, she doesn't have to drive her car over. That's because a corps of people known as the Vehicle Recovery Team will do it for her.

Today, she's riding with team supervisor, Skip Morgan. He's driving her car across rather than towing it. On those trips, she rides with him in the cab of his truck.

Here, about halfway over, at the bridge's highest point, huge suspension cables loom upward. Ms. Jimenez says these cables bring back a haunting memory. "These things make me feel like I'm going to fall off… somehow I'm just going to follow that suspension line," she says. "I did have a very bad fall from a second story when I was in my 20's. I broke my hip and my arm, and so the fear of falling is something I've experienced and had serious injuries from."

Some 23 million vehicles cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge each year. About 3,500 of these are drive-overs taken across by the Recovery Team. Mr. Morgan says there's more to taking someone across the Bridge than just driving. Team members must often be amateur psychologists and try to distract clients from their fear. "You pretty much talk to them and keep them calm going across the Bridge the weather, where they're traveling to, how was their vacation… small talk," he says.

Mr. Morgan, who jokes that he gets to test-drive a lot of cars in his job, always keeps his sense of humor. That and his careful driving please Susan Jimenez.

Morgan: "She keeps me calm while I drive across."
Jimenez: "Well, he knows everything to do. He stays in the middle lane. He follows far behind cars in front, so he does everything to help me."

The Bay Bridge drive-over service Skip Morgan and his team members provide is free. Lori Vidil, Director of Customer Relations at the Maryland Transportation Authority, says it's paid for mostly by tolls collected at state bridges. Ms. Vidil herself was once afraid of driving across bridges. She has a suggestion for gephyrophobes who want to conquer their fear.

"Come to our annual Bridge Walk that we have the first Sunday of May every year. We have between 40,000 and 60,000 people come out to walk across the bridge," she says. "It may be a little less intimidating for people to walk across the Bridge at their own pace surrounded by a lot of other people. They might find that to be a way they can become more familiar with the bridge. I did receive an e-mail from a customer who's previously been afraid to drive across the bridge and the person said that she had found it very helpful to have done Bridge Walk."

The number of drive-overs on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge has doubled in the last decade, and Bridge officials say they expect that number to continue rising as more people become aware of the service.