New Castle, Del. – The Delaware Memorial Bridge, which connects New Castle, Del., to Pennsville, N.J., is an engineering marvel, holding eight lanes of traffic as twin spans arch high into the air. It’s tall, prominent steel towers, which carry the narrow road, look like a gigantic clothesline propped high above the water.
As drivers whip across the span, which is 200 feet high and almost 11,000 feet long, few realize the earth disappearing beneath them as they reach the mid-point of the structure. But for drivers like Jill Sheridan, the easy commute stirs an unparalleled fear.
“I’ve always had trepidations about it, you know?” said Sheridan. “It not all bridges, either. I just don’t like this one.”
Sheridan takes advantage of a little-known program for people like her – who are paralyzed by fear about driving over bridges. Acrophobia Escorts, a program in Delaware named after the fear of heights, provides fearful drivers with a police patrolman who meets them at the head of the bridge and then safely drives their cars across.
“If you’re uneasy or have any doubts, we have [safe] areas on either side of the bridge where you can pull over and call #DRBA and it’ll ring right to our dispatch center,” said Sgt. Thomas Nichols, of the Delaware River and Bay Authority.
Nichols said making the call is much easier than trying to rescue a stopped vehicle, with a panicked driver.
“It dangerous,” said Nichols. “We have to worry about everyone’s safety so if we have an issue [disabled vehicle] up on the bridge we have to quickly close the lane and divert traffic until we can remove the vehicle and sometimes transport the driver to an ambulance.”
Any driver in need can call 302-571-6342. Two officers in a cruiser will arrive at the designated shoulder. The officers introduce themselves, present the liability form and take the wheel, ushering the driver safely across the three-mile span.
“We’re responsible,” said Col. Richard Arroyo of the Delaware River and Bay Authority, which operates the twin suspension bridges.
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. According to Arroyo, the phobia is not as rare as one may expect, with an estimated 400 annual transports over the Delaware Memorial. About 60 percent are repeat customers.
“I’m not embarrassed,” said Sheridan who has used the program for eight years. “I’m [still] scared and have to drive really slowly which isn’t an option, so I’d much rather have them give me a ride than become a hazard."
Dr. Keith Albow, an American psychiatrist, and author, said that phobias like the fear of bridges are not an isolated issue and can often be part of a larger issue.
Whatever the cause, such phobias lead to panicky feelings that sufferers go to great lengths to avoid, grinding normal routines to a halt.
“Our bridge was built without a shoulder and, at 200 feet above the water, that can be frightening for drivers,” said Patrolwoman Denise Wasson of the Delaware River & Bay Authority.
Officers said each person has a different reason for using the program, some find it helpful to chat while others will close their eyes as they cross the span.
“Sometimes they think they have the nerve [to drive], but we suggest that they don’t do that in case of an anxiety attack,” said Wasson.
For Sheridan, the free program is a blessing. In other parts of the country, those type of programs are privatized – often because the demand is so high.
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.
The fear of bridges is not limited to men or women, the young or the old, the educated elite or the working class. Nichols said monthly, truck drivers use the service.
Sheridan said she doesn't see a problem using Acrophobia Escorts.
“These officers do me a big favor,” Sheridan said. “The truth is they are trained to make people feel safe, so why not use their services?”