Alex Robinson, an entrepreneur from Maryland, is charging $25 to drive motorists in their own cars across one of the world’s scariest bridges because they are too terrified to do it themselves.
The William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge, commonly known as the Bay Bridge, spans nearly five miles of the Chesapeake Bay to connect Maryland’s eastern and western shores. Standing 186 feet tall at its highest point, the structure, which is regularly subject to violent storms, instills fear in thousands of Baltimore and Washington residents every time they drive across it.
This gave Alex Robinson and his family the idea of doing driving across for them, charging them for the peace of mind of not having to tackle the nerve-racking stretch themselves. And this Memorial Day weekend, as the annual pilgrimage to the beach towns and sailing harbors of the Eastern Shore began, he said business has been booming.
“About 5,800 people use our service,” Alex Robinson, of Kent Island Express, told The New York Times on Friday as he fielded calls from some of those nervous customers.
The bridge, which when it first opened in 1952 was the longest continuous over-water steel structure, has been rated by Travel & Leisure Magazine as the ninth scariest bridge in the world for the panic it instills in Maryland residents.
When bad weather hits, which is often, drivers can barely see the shore when they get to the middle.
It also has tall ships that pass beneath it and flimsy-looking guardrails that reveal a vertigo-inducing drop to the choppy waters below.
“Everyone talks about the fear of crossing the bridge,” Carolyn Casey, who lives in Washington and has a second home near St. Michaels, Maryland, told The Times.
With the passenger seat taken up by two Labrador retrievers, she squeezed into the backseat between her three-year daughter and a nanny as Alex Robinson got behind the wheel.
“When I told people I’d found someone to drive me over the bridge, they laughed,” Carolyn Casey, 41, said.
“But it all came out – everyone is afraid of the bridge.”
That’s because crossing the bridge is quite an endeavor, even when the weather is fine.
First, drivers have to tackle a disconcerting comes a dogleg curve, then travel up a steep incline over the initial suspension span; then the bridge drops and the motorist drives downhill and over a second span, a cantilever with boxy sides and a roof that feels like a claustrophobic tunnel.
Alex Robinson took over the unique business last year from his mother and stepfather who ran it for five years. He told The Times it had made him something of an amateur psychologist.
He hires only upbeat drivers, and instructs them to talk about anything but the bridge for the 10-15 minutes it takes to cross.
“Their stress and anxieties feed off of your mood,” he explains to them.
Alex Robinson said most customers, nervous, talk a lot during the trip – about everything from their children to their first boyfriend.
But he also described construction workers who rode in the back seat of their trucks, hats pulled over their eyes and their ears plugged, and a woman who rode with a blanket over her head because she was so scared.
One man, Alex Robinson told The Times, asked to be put in the trunk, but the request was refused.
Another has paid $50-a-day for years to be driven across the bridge to his job in the morning and then back at the end of the day.
“Nervous about crossing over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge?” the website states.
“If so, you’re not alone. Our Bay Bridge Drive-Over Help will let you relax and enjoy the ride and the view!”
The company instructs drivers who are “nervous or need assistance for any reason” to contact them an hour before they get to the bridge.
“Once you call we’ll coordinate a meeting location an assist you from there by driving your vehicle over the bridge for you,” the website states, adding that the drive-over service is provided from 5 a.m. till 12 a.m.
However, drivers of motorcycles, rental vehicles, or commercial vehicles are left to their own devices, as the company said it cannot accommodate such vehicles.
Customer, Kathleen Busch, explained her fear of the bridge stemmed from getting trapped in the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel for hours.
The next time she tried to drive through the tunnel she told the newspaper “everything went white. I had a full-blown panic attack. I thought I was going to pass out”.
Scared the same thing would happen on the Bay Bridge, Kathleen Busch hasn’t attempted to drive it herself.
The terrifying structure isn’t the only bridge to have driver assistance programs in place, but because it links two major cities, it is the only one with enough traffic to support a shuttle service industry.
Aside from Kent Island Express, two other companies ferry drivers across the nightmare bridge.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge is part of U.S. Routes 50 and 301, and serves as a vital link in both routes. As part of U.S. Route 50, it connects the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area with Ocean City, Maryland and other coastal tourist destinations.
As part of U.S. Route 301, it serves as part of an alternate route for Interstate 95 travelers between northern Delaware and the Washington, D.C. area.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge has been closed four times due to extreme weather, mainly hurricanes.
On September 18, 2003, it was closed during Hurricane Isabel, and on August 27, 2011, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley ordered it closed to all traffic when sustained winds exceeded 55 miles per hour during Hurricane Irene. On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy brought traffic to close and on March 6, 2013, during a nor’easter, high winds again forced motorists to seek other routes.