Bridge suicides prompt lifesaving barriers

October 22, 2013

For people in the throes of mental disturbance or difficult life situations, bridge suicides often look like accessible, fatal solutions. Advocates say that bridge suicides often occur as a result of impulse and accessibility — one of which can be prevented with deterrents, such as bridge barriers. Take San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, where over 1,600 have jumped to their deaths since 1937. More people have committed suicide there than anywhere else in the world — with ten people jumping this past August, making for an unfortunate record.

Golden gate with crisis counselling sign

The Golden Gate bridge is the second most common site of suicide in the world, just behind the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge. From Rafael Castillo.

Simple fixes to bridges — adding a suicide barrier to replace the existing four-foot barrier, in the Golden Gate’s case — could potentially save hundreds of lives by making it difficult for people to access a jumping-off point. A new law in California would address the impulse and accessibility factors in bridge suicides by requiring that the state “consider” barriers when building or rebuilding bridges — barriers which are, incidentally, cheaper to provide for when included in a bridge’s original plans.

The Bridge Rail Foundation is a key advocate of the law, while opposition came from  groups representative of local city and county governments, which worried that bridge owners might become liable for suicides. Because of opposition, the bill was amended from necessitating barriers to requiring “consideration” of building barriers. The updated law “would be satisfied by including a document in project study reports that show a suicide barrier was considered during the construction of a new bridge or replacement of one with a history of suicides.” (Emphasis blogger’s own).

“We want the state to at least consider the chances someone would jump and how you can incorporate that in the design,” says Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who wrote the legislation. At the Golden Gate, a suicide barrier hasn’t been approved; a stainless steel net was approved in 2008 but the $45 million to fund it hasn’t been allocated. Yet it requires more than funds and construction work. The fix would require a revised understanding of suicide prevention.

According to Paula Clayton, professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and former medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, proof that barriers are effective in preventing bridge suicides is “overwhelming.” The majority of people die from their first suicide attempt, she says, and the easiest way to prevent them is to restrict access to “methods with a high risk of death.” (Only two percent of Golden Gate jumpers survive the 200-foot fall.)

Preventing jumpers will save lives, advocates say. The rare few who have jumped from the Golden Gate and survived have said that, mid-jump, they immediately regretted their decision. As the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention states, “Barriers to suicide give suicidal individuals and those who care for them something they desperately need: time. This includes time to change their minds, time for someone to intervene, and time to seek help.”

Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena

The Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena, CA. From Bill Selak.

A 1978 study following 515 people who were prevented from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge from 1937-1971, found that only 6 percent went on to commit suicide after their failed attempt. And a 2013 analysis on suicide deterrents at popular “suicide hot spots” found that interventions reduced suicides by 85%. Despite a rise in jumping at nearby sites in certain locations, “the dramatic drop in jumping at the hot spots led to reduced overall rates of suicide by jumping.”

Suicide rates were highest in America’s West in 2010 — with California rates at 10.5 per 100,000 (17.9 in Oregon; 20.4 in Nevada; 18.5 in Idaho) according to the AFSP. While bridge-specific suicide statistics aren’t available, annual suicide numbers at the Golden Gate have been relatively steady for the last few years: 33 in 2012; 37 in 2011; 32 in 2010; 31 in 2009; 34 in 2008. This August alone saw 10 suicides at the site. The tenth victim was a 17-year-old girl.

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Category: Road safety, Traffic law

About the Author ()

Katy is a writer, reporter and editor who, in addition to writing for RoadTrafficSigns, has worked with the United Nations Development Programme, Hamptons magazine, Hearst Corporation, The Daily Mail, People Magazine, and a variety of other publications and nonprofits. After graduating with honors from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2011, and distinctions on her thesis and in the consumer journalism seminar, she moved to Milan, Italy. In Italy, she worked as a writer and consultant for an international magazine, editing and translating text and reporting on such events as the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, the annual design fair. A born and raised New Yorker, she has lived in three of five boroughs, relying quite a bit on public transport until getting her driver's license at the admittedly belated age of 21.

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