Situated approximately 200 feet above the Straights of Mackinac, the Mackinac Bridge has some breathtaking views. For some, it literally takes their breath away and leaves them feeling panicked.
Gephyrophobia, or the fear of driving over bridges, impacts a driver’s ability to travel freely. At Mackinac Bridge, there’s a way to combat that fear: The Mackinac Bridge Authority (MBA) offers help through the driver assistance program. Drivers who do not feel comfortable crossing the Mackinac Bridge can have staff drive their vehicle for them. The program, in which an MBA employee drives a customer’s car, motorcycle or commercial vehicle across the bridge, has been offered since the 1980s.
Licensed clinical psychologist Elizabeth Meadows is an expert in anxiety disorders. She is a professor and runs the anxiety disorder and trauma clinic at Central Michigan University. According to Meadows, driving itself and specifically driving over bridges is diagnostically observed in several different anxiety disorders. There are phobias, such as the fear of heights or driving. There also is agoraphobia, the fear of panicking.
“Agoraphobia is the avoidance of situations because it might be difficult to leave or to get help if you were to have a panic attack or panic-like sensations. I could also be afraid of driving across bridges, because I’m afraid I’ll crash my car, or because I’m afraid I’ll drive over the edge. But if I have panic and agoraphobia, I could be afraid of all sorts of situations where if I were to panic, it would be hard to leave, and driving over a bridge is just one example of that,” Meadows said.
“For some people, it could also be PTSD. If you’ve been in a car crash, or say just missed being in a crash driving over a bridge, those things can be reminders, and therefore you have the same feeling,” Meadows said.
When experiencing phobias, there are three components: physiological, cognitive and behavioral. Each response has the intended goal of keeping you safe.
“If you have some perceived danger or threat, your body releases adrenaline and noradrenaline to the body, and it has all of these effects are all designed to help you fight for your life or run for your life,” Meadows said. Fear is inherently a good thing. It’s a survival instinct that’s benefitted humanity for centuries. But when it becomes debilitating in non-life-threatening situations, there are options available to help.
Meadows is an advocate for the driver assistance program.
“I think the driver assistance program is really excellent. There are lots and lots of people who are terrified to drive over bridges. That can be really impairing. If you want to go on vacation to the Upper Peninsula and your family is stuck, having that available is great. It can help reduce the impairment that having that anxiety disorder involves,” Meadows said.
By utilizing the program, people don’t have to avoid the bridge to travel up north, which could exacerbate their feelings of anxiety over time.
“Avoidance is one of the biggest maintaining factors in anxiety disorders, and it’s one of the ways that anxiety disorders develop,” Meadows said. “If you start avoiding that thing, then that fear kind of stays there and becomes stronger. One of the most effective treatments for anxiety disorders is exposure therapy.”
Exposure therapy is a psychological treatment developed to help people face their fears. When people are fearful of something, they tend to avoid the feared objects, activities or situations. Although this avoidance might reduce feelings of fear in the short term, over the long term it can make the fear even worse. In such situations, a psychologist might recommend a program of exposure therapy in order to help break the pattern of avoidance and fear. In this form of therapy, psychologists create a safe environment in which to “expose” individuals to the things they fear and avoid. The exposure to the feared objects, activities or situations in a safe environment helps reduce fear and decrease avoidance.
“When we’re doing exposure, one of the things we do is we kind of look at what what are the different things that you’re afraid of and that you avoid and have you start confronting them,” Meadows said.
If someone has a fear of driving over bridges, on day one of exposure therapy, they wouldn’t be driving over a bridge. Instead they may start with watching a movie about bridge driving, doing a simulator or crossing a small highway bridge.
“If you look at how this program may fit with exposure therapy, one of the things you might do is to use this program to get used to being driven across bridges. This way you can get used to driving across the bridge without being the driver yourself,” Meadows said.
Other mechanisms like controlled breathing and grounding exercises can also be used. Exposure therapy brings on controlled situation where you can feel those panic feelings and still survive.
In the meantime, however, there is help to cross the bridge. In 2019, 2,559 customers used the driver assistance program. Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the service costs $10, plus the appropriate toll for the vehicle driven. Drivers must be 18 years of age or older.
To request from the north side: Request the service from inside the administration building. To request from the south side: Pull over on the wide shoulder just north of exit 339 near the booth and call Bridge Services.
There is a required liability waiver, and staff will complete a checklist of several items the customer must agree to. This includes: allowing for adjustments of mirrors and the driver’s seat, using a dash camera to record while inside the vehicle during the crossing, keeping any animals in the vehicle restrained, having all occupants wear masks and allowing the vehicle to be cleaned before crossing.
For more information of the driver assistance program, visit www.mackinacbridge.org, or call (906) 643-7600.