A woman gives her car keys to a strange man. He starts her engine. They both sit up front. Her kids are in the back seat making fun of her because she’s so afraid.
The man’s son is driving in the lane next to them, watching everything.
The woman is crying now, as she buries her head in the strange man’s lap. His son sees the woman’s head disappear below the window.
The man says to himself, “Oh Lord.”
Now the woman is screaming. The man tries to soothe her.
It’s all over in five minutes, give or take, and in the end the woman feels a lot better. And the man makes $30.
The man is Steven Eskew, who owns Kent Island Express, a Bay Bridge drive-over service; the woman was a petrified lacrosse mom on her way back from a tournament with a car full of kids.
Her nemesis: the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
The Bay Bridge is just over four miles long and takes all of six minutes to cross on a good day, without traffic. Sure, the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge (its official name) is a little high—186 feet from the deck to the water.
But as far as bridges go, it’s not that high.
What freaks people out about the bridge, says Eskew, is the combination of its height, driving over water for four miles, and its relative “openness”—its short concrete barriers and see-through guard rails, which send some drivers, figuratively, over the edge.
For years, the Maryland Transportation Authority drove skittish motorists over the bridge gratis to keep traffic flowing, but the calls became so frequent the state privatized the service about eight years ago.
That’s where Eskew comes in.
During high season, as many as 30 motorists a day pay Eskew or one of his drivers $30 each way to chauffeur them and their car across.
Their alternative is pretty unpleasant: Either don’t go to the shore, or drive up and around—adding an extra hour or more to the three-hour beach commute.
Eskew says drivers’ Bay Bridge apprehensions are a mixed bag of fear of heights (acrophobia), fear of crossing bridges (gephyrophobia), general panic attacks, and vertigo.
And, of course, everyone’s anxiety is different.
“Some people can drive over the east span but not the west, or vice versa,” he says.
The most common anxiety is what he terms the “Christopher Columbus fear.”
“As people drive over the bridge, it rises and they reach a point where they can’t see over the top. Some feel like they are going to drive off the bridge into the bay,” he says. (Columbus, presumably, was afraid of falling off the Earth).