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Crossing the ­Barrier of Fear

When the Bay Bridge looms, Kent Island Shuttle Service will do the driving

Reaching heights that exceed 200 feet; spanning a gap of over four miles; accommodating more than 1,500 vehicles — per five lanes; and carrying over 27 million vehicles each year — the Chesapeake Bay Bridge may be a wonder of modern (or, not-so-modern) conveyance. But a select few view it as a crossing more insurmountable, a ­barrier of fear.
    These select few suffer from gephyrophobia, or fear of bridges.
    “The phobia is real,” says Carol Claiborne. “I’ve experienced it.”
    To get to the other side, sufferers like Claiborne need help. Many call on the Kent Island Shuttle Service, also know as KISS.
    Before KISS, Maryland Transportation Administration rescued terrified drivers, for a total of 4,000 each year. In 2007, lack of funding ended MTA’s assistance to gephyrophobic drivers. Private contractors seeped into the void.

Bob Spindler and Debi Mathews started Kent Island Shuttle Service as a taxi-like operation to shuttle gephyrophobiacs across the Bay Bridge.

    Entrepreneurs Bob Spindler and Debi Mathews started KISS in 2011 as a taxi-like operation that shuttles those unable or unwilling to cross the Bay Bridge themselves. In February of that year, Maryland’s Public Service Commission granted KISS the drive-over contract. Other contractors still run shuttles, but KISS has authority. If you call, they’ve got to come. If you ask MTA who to call, the Administration will tell you call to KISS: 410-726-3990.
    The gig is this: you call KISS at whatever time you need to be shuttled across — yes, even at 3am, if need be. You then establish an appropriate pick-up point where KISS will be waiting for you at the appointed time.
    Ususally Mathews is your chauffeur. A former school bus driver, she can manage any make, model and transmission, including standard and hybrid, regardless of size.
    “She’s really good at driving these big rigs across,” says Spindler of his partner.
    He follows close behind in their KISS-labeled Honda van.
    You can sit in the back seat of your car or ride in the Spindler’s van. Some people prefer the van, imagining it has less chance than a smaller car of tumbling over the edge of the bridge.
    Once on the other side, you make the vehicle or driver switch.
    Last, and certainly not least, you offer up the state-required $25 for a one-way ride.
    Weather, traffic and — of most importance — vacation season, all play a part in determining how much business KISS does.
    “Any excuse to go the beach tends to increase the number of people who need assistance getting across the bridge,” says Spindler.
    Exploiting the business of fear takes flexibility. That’s what KISS is all about. From the rescue drivers’ perspective, the task of getting a customer from one side of the bridge to the other isn’t so much about making the trip less fearful as making it seem mundane.
    Understanding that while on the bridge their customers are experiencing high anxiety, KISS tries to make the trip as comfortable as possible.
    “KISS is very accommodating,” Claiborne said.
    Conversation is KISS’s key relaxation strategy. Mathews talks about gardening and recipes. Spindler says it “keeps customers’ minds off the bridge.”
    Trust, and friendship: these are two more ingredients in the bridge-crossing business. “You develop some kind of relationship with these people and it becomes more than just a job,” Spindler said.
    In 2013, KISS did 1,603 drive-overs, spent $3,010 in bridge tolls and racked up some 60,000 miles of driving time.
    And this summer, they’re not going any place except across the Bay Bridge a thousand or two times more.