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The Bay Bridge

By Sean O’Brien Finch

“I just can’t drive across it.” Every native Marylander knows someone who says that. And every one of us knows what it refers to. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The bridge that crosses Maryland’s iconic body of water near Annapolis, connecting Maryland’s eastern and western shores. Not to be confused with the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay that connects parts of Virginia.

Opened in 1952, expanded in 1973, the bridge is an engineering marvel. Crossing over it is a daily ritual for many Marylanders. For most, it is a landmark on the way to summer vacation destinations away east, or ‘downy ocean’, to use the local dialect.

Yet for some people it is a terrifying deathtrap. Why? Perhaps the height of the bridge, with its stunning view of the water below, combined with low walls on the sides, has something to do with that. Some people don’t like heights. But its more specific than just the height.

“I’m afraid I’ll fall off.” For the people who are afraid to drive on the bridge, that’s the real tipping point. They are afraid of being run off the bridge and falling into the water. And so, because of this fear of falling off of the Bay Bridge, they won’t drive on it.

That is absolutely stunning.

It is stunning because these same drivers that won’t drive on the Bay Bridge, will at the same time happily drive on the Beltway during rush hour, or in downtown Baltimore City before an O’s game, or on a dark country road at night during deer season. But never, never in a million years, over that dreaded Bay Bridge. The juxtaposition of being willing to drive in more dangerous areas while refusing to drive in less dangerous areas – that’s the part that boggles the mind. But if you live in Maryland long enough you know folks who think like this.

Here are the facts. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge has seen hundreds of millions of vehicles drive across it ever since it opened in 1952. Only two (2) have ever fallen over the side. And of those two, 50% of the drivers survived!

On the other hand, Baltimore City averaged 37 fatal crashes per year from 2013 – 2017, according to the latest 5-year report issued by the Maryland Highway Safety Office. Prince George’s County was worse, averaging 85 fatal crashes over the same span, accounting for over 18% of such crashes statewide. There are more facts we could cite, but the general gist is pretty clear – it’s a lot safer to drive on the Bay Bridge than it is to drive in most other places in Maryland.

And that, I’m afraid, is the sobering reality of driving on today’s roadways. Let’s be honest. Most of us who drive every day are desensitized to just how dangerous the roadways can be. The road itself offers us no protection – nothing more than two yellow lines dividing one lane from another. Those lines aren’t going to stop a car from crossing over and causing a wreck, and maybe ending a life.

No, our protection and our safety on the roads comes not from the road itself, but from the other drivers on the road. If everyone drives carefully, then everyone makes it home o.k. When a driver decides to drive recklessly, drive distracted, or drive drunk, injury and death are the predictable result. That’s why it is so important to emphasize driving carefully, without distractions (no cell phones please!), and sober. Careful driving saves lives. Not driving carefully ends lives.

To illustrate the importance of this, a trip down memory lane may help us here. Think back to those times that you drove over the Bay Bridge. Think about how you drove over it. Were you more careful than usual? Were you less careful than usual? Probably you were more careful. Now think about the other drivers who were going over it with you. Did you notice the other drivers being more reckless, or less reckless, then drivers normally are in other places? Did you notice more of the other drivers talking on their phones, or less of them talking on their phones, than normal? Probably you noticed the other drivers being more careful than normal. Why is it that you and the other drivers are more careful on the Bay Bridge?

Maybe the reason is because you and the other drivers are terrified of falling off of the Bay Bridge! So when you drive on it you do so more carefully than you would drive in other places. And all of the other drivers do the same. Which is why no one falls off of it.

Maybe, just maybe, if all of us drove around the rest of the state like we drove on the Bay Bridge, we’d have a lot less crashes. And it would be a lot safer for everyone. Something to think about the next time you get behind the wheel.