Pick a number: 20 or 9,000,000

20 people annually or 9,000,000 people annually.

Golden Gate BridgeThose are the numbers that the Golden Gate Bridge (GGB) Board of Directors will need to choose between in October.

GGB officials are considering a proposal to erect suicide barriers on the bridge. Public forums were held on Tuesday and Wednesday to gauge public reaction to the five options designed to deter suicides. The cost of erecting one of the barriers is estimated between $40–50 million.

Bridge officials have been culling comments about the barriers at the forums and through the site Golden Gate Bridge Suicide Deterrent Barrier. As of Wednesday, July 23, the San Francisco Chronicle reports:

[O]f the more than 900 tallied so far, an overwhelming 75 percent of the respondents said they prefer that no barrier be built at all. But a small, passionate group of proponents – many of them family
members of people who jumped to their deaths from the bridge – insist a barrier is needed. Any barrier.

“Overwhelming 75 percent” prefer no barrier? That’s not good.

Opponents of the barriers say it will ruin the aesthetic view of the bridge for the yearly estimated 9 million visitors.

I stumbled upon a blog, Bookworm Room, yesterday that brought the issue to my attention. This blogger likely represents the sentiment of the “overwhelming 75 percent.”

My question for you is whether you think it’s appropriate for the public to bear two enormous costs (the financial cost and the destruction of part of the Bridge’s aesthetic values) to prevent further suicides.  As for me, while I understand that the Bridge has always been a suicide magnat (sic),
and that many suicides are impulsive acts that might not occur if the actor didn’t just happen to be on a suicide magnate
(sic), I don’t think that’s enough to make these costly changes.  When one considers the hundreds of thousands of people who, on a daily basis, enjoy the beauty the Bridge provides, I don’t believe it’s reasonable to destroy the view for the general public in order to try to save the
15-20 lives lost on an annual basis on the Bridge.

When one considers the minute fraction of Bridge users that the suicides represent, and the fact that at least some of those 15-20 annual suicides are not impulse suicides, but will live to try another
day and another way, it simply seems unfair to change forever — at great expense — the uniquely beautiful character of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

Maybe my emotions skew my rationality.

It’s not okay to sacrifice the lives of 15 or 20 people simply for the sake of aestheticism.

Sure, the people who want to commit suicide will find another way to die apart from the bridge if the barriers were erected, but the majority of “suicidees” will lose the impulse due to the lack of “ease, speed, and certainty of death.” Suicides, in the majority of cases, are impulse acts.

Let’s take 26-year-old Kevin Hines, for example. The San Francisco resident who suffers from bipolar disorder heard voices telling him to jump off the bridge. So on Sept. 25, 2000, he scaled the 4-foot railing and made the leap.

Nearly 8 years later, Hines is encouraging people to support the erection of barriers to save people like himself from jumping off bridge.

“I jumped and lived. Now I want to do whatever I can to prevent others from jumping. If you raise the rail, you’ll stop the suicides.”

Here are the five barrier options:

  1. Additional barrier, horizontal rods: An 8-foot barrier with horizontal rods 55/8 inches apart would be added to the existing barrier along with a transparent winglet at the top to prevent jumpers from climbing over.
  2. GGB_new-barrier_horizrodsNew barrier, horizontal rods: A new 12-foot barrier with horizontal rods 4.4 inches apart on the lower section and 6 inches apart on the upper portion, plus a winglet at the top, would replace the existing rail.
  3. Nothin’ but net. The net, covered with stainless steel cable, would be located 20 feet below the sidewalk and extended 20 feet horizontally from the bridge.
  4. Additional barrier, vertical rods: An 8-foot barrier with vertical rods 6 inches apart would be placed atop the existing handrail.
  5. New barrier, vertical rods: A new 12-foot barrier with vertical rods 4 inches apart would replace the existing rail.
    (Various views of the proposal can be seen on pages 6–7 and 11–15 of this PDF.)

While admirable, I think the net is the worst choice of all. (I’m not the only one who thinks so.) Number one, it still allows for easy access to complete the jump. By that point, it might scare some people out of suicide, but the rest
would just attempt to roll off it and finish what they started. Number two, it poses the problem of how to get back up on the bridge. Suicide occurrences are estimated at 20 yearly, but the Marin County Coroner confirmed 34 completed suicides in 2006 and “warned that the actual figure may be higher.” Who knows how many more jump without police presence? Will officials include the plan of having an emergency phone or running video camera near the net?

The horizontal rods allow for easier scaling. The benefit of this plan, however, is that if someone were to climb the rods, it would draw the attention of motorists who may alert police. As it is now, someone could “accidentally” fall off the bridge and no one would notice.

Vertical rods, which would require significantly more effort to climb than horizontal rods, aren’t foolproof either. Based on whether the barrier is new or added, there would be still be a 4-foot raised rail — whether it be the current barrier or the proposed rub rail. That leaves 8 feet. All that work would be a serious deterrent to most suicidal people.

GGBfone_OOS2Regardless, something is better than nothing. If people are willing to settle for the net because it’s the least aesthetically intrusive, I’m all for it. Of the proposed choices, my preferences lie with the vertical rods but, hey, I’m not looking to be picky — I just want to save lives.

Oh wait. Officials have put forth a sixth option… do nothing.

Well, opponents of the barriers think it’s something. The “No-Build Alternative” involves the following:

  • 11 emergency and crisis counseling phones on the Bridge (those already exist)
  • Public safety patrols trained in suicide intervention  (those already exist)
  • Bridge workers who are trained in suicide intervention and rescue (don’t those already exist?)
  • Closed-circuit cameras (don’t those already exist?)

So… the “No-Build Alternative” is status quo.

I know, I’m being pushy about these barriers. I’m passionate about this. I recently wrote a five-part series on whether suicide can be deterred if the method is not easily accessible.

It can.

Let’s recap the effectiveness of the suicide barriers at the Ellington Bridge in Washington:

A study conducted five years after the Ellington barrier went up showed that while suicides at the Ellington were eliminated completely, the rate at the Taft barely changed, inching up from 1.7 to 2 deaths per year. What’s more, over the same five-year span, the total number of
jumping suicides in Washington had decreased by 50 percent, or the precise percentage the Ellington once accounted for.

So why the Ellington more than the Taft? … The concrete railing on the Taft stands chest-high on an average man, while the pre-barrier Ellington came to just above the belt line. A jump from either was
lethal, but one required a bit more effort and a bit more time, and both factors stand in the way of impulsive action.

These are the statistics that critics of suicide barriers like to ignore. Critics are more concerned about “altering the design of the Art Deco bridge, an icon of the Bay Area landscape.” Screw Art Deco design. Save lives. (I think I’ll make that into a T-shirt.)

82-year-old Doris Madden, who admitted to being suicidal and depressed most of her life, told the Marin Independent Journal:

“Aesthetically, I don’t care. I don’t think the barriers will look bad. I just don’t think it will stop people from committing suicide.”

So Doris — from one person who’s been suicidal to another — after 82 years, what kept you from jumping off the bridge?

Call to Action: If you’ve gotten this far in reading the post, I’m now challenging you to go to the Golden Gate Bridge Suicide Deterrent Barrier site and provide your input on what should be done.

  1. You will be asked to vote on your first choice and then a second alternative.
  2. You may provide comments on why you chose those alternatives and any additional comments that you might like to add.
  3. To make the comments valid, you will have to provide your first and last name (I used Marissa Miller), your city, state, and country.
  4. You may provide your full address and e-mail but it’s not required.

You may believe that your input won’t make a difference — it does. Seventy-five percent of respondents currently think that no barrier should be built. If you know the pain of losing someone, and especially in the tragic event of suicide, you know how important and effective these barriers can be in decreasing the suicide rate — not only in the state of California but also in the nation. I strongly urge you to vote for a barrier and help save a life. Or 20. Or more.

4 thoughts on “Pick a number: 20 or 9,000,000

  1. It’s sad to see so many value the aesthetics of the bridge over human life, but it’s not surprising considering how little human life is valued in our society.

  2. Ah, but that’s the critical argument, Greybeard. The Golden Gate Bridge is seen as the way to “die in style.” The nearby Oakland Bay Bridge doesn’t have nearly half as many jumpers as the GGB. Critics think that jumpers will go from the GGB to the Oakland Bridge and that’s just not the case. Studies of other bridges that had barriers added later have shown that suicides decreased dramatically — not just on nearby bridges but also in the surrounding areas or region.
    While it’s true that if a person wants to die, he (or she) will find another way, but if jumping off the bridge isn’t as easily accessible then it would prevent a lot of impulse jumpers from taking the plunge (for lack of a better term).
    Barriers don’t eliminate suicides completely; they give the “suicidee” a chance to think twice. It’s been said that someone who is suicidal just needs a little bit more time. Barriers are effective in providing that.

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