- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 18, 2006

Maryland transportation officials are considering charging a fee to drive fearful motorists across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

The Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) has quietly provided the assistance-driving program to thousands of white-knuckled drivers each year at no charge — taking more than 3,900 motorists and their vehicles across the Bay last year and about 3,400 in 2004.

But the strain placed on the limited staff to provide the service has caused the agency to look into charging a nominal fee, MDTA spokeswoman Terri Moss said.

“The program isn’t something we advertise,” Miss Moss said, noting that only one employee is available to help nervous drivers across and is often needed for more urgent matters.

“It’s a good program, and the safety of motorists is important,” she said. “But the vehicle-recovery technician’s priority is to attend to disabled vehicles and accidents — to clear the roadway.”

Charging a fee for the service was one of a series of recommendations made by a bridge advisory committee. The decision rests with the MDTA, but talks are still preliminary, Miss Moss said.

At more than 4 miles long and 186 feet high, the bridge provides a scenic link to Kent Island, the Eastern Shore and Atlantic Ocean for hundreds of thousands of commuters, travelers and beachgoers. In fiscal 2005-2006, nearly 25 million vehicles crossed the bridge.

But for gephyrophobics — people who dread crossing bridges — the span poses an impassable, seemingly endless barrier across the Bay.

Such fears are often steeped in greater phobias of being trapped in tight areas or fear of heights, said David Kupfer, a licensed clinical psychologist in Falls Church.

“It’s not just driving over a bridge, they also worry about things like driving on long stretches of highway between exits or being stuck in traffic,” said Mr. Kupfer, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology.

The most common manifestation of the fear is avoidance, he said.

He said people will avoid attending events that would require going over a bridge or end up taking alternative routes. “The Bay Bridge in particular, especially at this time of year when people are trying to get to the beach,” he said.

Frequent users of the service likely wouldn’t mind a small fee. Circumnavigating the bridge could be even costlier, and definitely more time-consuming.

For instance, the most plausible route to get to Ocean City from the District is taking Route 50 — a 140-mile direct route to the beach. Unfortunately for gephyrophobics, that means having to cross the bridge.

The alternative would be traveling on Interstate 95 through Baltimore, Harford and Cecil counties, near the Pennsylvania state line. Motorists then have two options: either continue through nearly the entire state of Delaware to Worcester County, or take Route 301 through Cecil and Kent counties before finally linking back to Route 50 for the remaining 80 or so miles.

Either detour would add about 60 miles and at least an hour to the trip, depending on traffic.

Barbara Wiederhold, executive director the California-based Virtual Reality Medical Center, which has treated more than 200 patients for driving-related disorders, said the assistance-driving program that the MDTA employs is feasible only as a short-term fix.

The most effective solution, she said, is overcoming the fear.

“It can create a dependency, where they feel they don’t have to drive over. It should be used as a steppingstone, not a solution.”

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