Scared of driving over bridges? You can call someone to take the wheel

S.W. Burkhead, Delaware River and Bay Authority Police, patrols the Delaware Memorial Bridge in New Castle, Del. Hundreds of motorists in our area suffer from an unusual yet debilitating fear of driving over bridges. Luckily, help is just a dispatch call away. People crossing the Delaware Memorial Bridge can take advantage of a 70-year-old Acrophobia Escorts program, which calls for patrolman to drive a scared driver's car over the bridge for them.

Most people look at a bridge and see the obvious way to get to the other side.  Some people look at the same bridge and see a death-dealing monster blocking the way.

Every year, motorists by the hundreds, paralyzed by an unusual fear, are rendered incapable of driving their own vehicles over area spans. Their terror knows no season, but for many of the stricken, summer is the cruelest, as the beach beckons from the other side of a bridge too far.

They can panic and head for the Poconos. Or they can make a call.

Drivers in mortal dread of crossing the Delaware Memorial Bridge, connecting New Castle, Del., and Pennsville, N.J., can turn to the Acrophobia Escorts program, named after the fear of heights. Patrolmen meet them at the head of the bridge, then drive their cars across for them.

“Once they’re in the passenger seat,” said Patrolman Steve Burkhead, “that tends to be the only medication they need.”

The Delaware River Port Authority — whose four bridges linking Pennsylvania and New Jersey include those major Shore arteries, the Ben Franklin and the Walt Whitman — also will help drivers in trouble, though it’s not standard operating procedure.

At the Delaware Memorial Bridge, the phobic are not as rare as one might expect, with 323 transports in 2017 and 468 the year before. About 60 percent are repeat customers, according to Col. Richard Arroyo of the Delaware River and Bay Authority, which operates the twin suspension bridges; some regulars call ahead to schedule appointments when they know they will be traveling to the area. Men are just as scared as women, millennials as bridge-shy as boomers.

The service has been offered since the structure opened in 1951. “This is one of the things that we can really do for the traveling public,” Arroyo said.

Otherwise, Burkhead added, “It would take an extra two hours to go around.”

Camera icon JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Dominic Liberto (left) and S.W. Burkhead, Delaware River and Bay Authority Police, near the entrance to the Delaware Memorial Bridge in Pennsville, N.J.

Any driver needing help is directed to stop on the shoulder near the approach to the bridge and call the dispatch line at 302-571-6342. Two officers in a cruiser will then pull up behind. They introduce themselves and look inside. The driver signs a liability form and slides to the passenger side, ceding the wheel. Off they go over the two-mile span, with the second officer following.

Patrolman Dominic Liberto usually asks if they’re more comfortable in the middle lanes, and engages them in chitchat. Sometimes, though, the conversation wanders into a dark place: “If you don’t mind me asking, why do you have an issue driving over the bridge?”

“Everybody has a story,” he said. “And most people feel better when they tell it.”

Often, it’s the height. At its peak, the Delaware Memorial Bridge is 174 feet above the water.

“As they are approaching the center of the bridge, they can’t see the roadway going down,” Liberto said. “They can’t see the road over the crest.”

He can’t recall coming across anyone who didn’t want to talk about it.

“By the time they’re done giving me their explanations, the worst of it is over,” he said. “Some people cover their eyes, but a lot of people are calm. They just can’t do it.”

Acrophobia, however, is not a label that fits all of the bridge-averse, says Reid Wilson, an associate professor in the psychology department at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and author of several books on anxiety-related illnesses.

“It’s not just about heights,” he said. “It’s heights, or it’s claustrophobia, or most likely it’s people who have panic disorder. They feel trapped and out of control, and the problem with a bridge is you can’t pull over.”

People who use escorts are “just trying to survive,” he said. “It’s like people who take medication to fly on a plane because they’re so anxious. They don’t know any other way to manage it, so I totally get them doing that.”

He added, “All of us have our limits in some ways. Some people have the nervous system of a racehorse. Some people have the nervous system of a turtle.”

Burkhead, the Delaware Memorial Bridge patrolman, said he typically encounters just ordinary folks in passenger vehicles. But there are exceptions, such as the soldier who routinely jumped out of planes, but couldn’t drive over a bridge.

“I’m surprised that they trust someone else to drive them, as opposed to being behind the wheel themselves,” he said. “For me, being a Type A personality, that would be the complete opposite of how I would feel. I would want to be in control.”

Camera icon JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
S.W. Burkhead, Delaware River and Bay Authority Police, patrols the Delaware Memorial Bridge in New Castle, Del.

The DRPA does not have available data on the number of drivers its officers help, according to communications director Kyle Anderson, but he indicated the number is not substantial.

“It’s not something that we tout or advertise,” he said, “but the willingness to accommodate any issues like that is what our cops are known for.”

In some areas, though, the demand is so high that it has drawn private-sector entrepreneurs.

At the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, connecting Kent Island and the Annapolis, Md., area, Steven Eskew operates his Kent Island Express seven days a week, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. During normal business hours, drivers can get a lift for about $30. Call overnight, and the price can surge as high as $90.

This time of year, he handle 10 or 12 escorts daily. On a typical summer day, though, he gets about 40.

He shares Liberto’s conclusion: The fear arises from the inability to see beyond the crest of the bridge, especially when it’s foggy.

“I call it the Christopher Columbus fear,” Eskew said. “They feel like they’re going off the edge.”