GoldenGateXpress: Debate for Golden Gate Bridge suicide barrier continues

By Lisa Carmack at San Francisco State University, California

  • Nearly 2,000 people have committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge
  • There are 25-40 attempted suicides a year
  • The CA state legilature has no say over the construction of a preventative suicide barrier
  • Arguments for and against the barrier center around cost, effectiveness and aesthetic appeal

The Golden Gate Bridge is currently the only bridge in California not under the control of the state legislature, and any measures to construct a preventative suicide barrier are required to go through the Golden Gate Bridge District.

Some choose guns or sleeping pills, but other suicide-attempters jump off one of San Francisco's most popular icons (photo courtesy of Rich Niewiroski Jr./Wikimedia Commons).

Although many people are familiar with the landmark, few may know the Golden Gate Bridge stands as the final destination of almost 2,000 people who have ended their lives after grappling with mental illness.

“The degree of attempts is rather astonishing,” says John Bateson, executive director of the Contra Costa Crisis Center. “There are 25 to 40 every year and that doesn’t account for the bodies that are never found.”

The impact of falling over 250 feet into a body of water does not always kill an individual instantly. Although the impact can cause extensive internal injuries, victims of such a fall can still swim around for several minutes before drowning or dying of internal bleeding, according to former Marin County Coroner Ken Holmes.

There has been talk of installing a barrier in the form of a net to dissuade people from jumping, but action has been hindered by questions of aesthetics, finances and effectiveness, according to Bateson.

For years Bateson has been compiling information about the suicides to publish in a comprehensive book this coming February.

The Golden Gate Bridge is currently the only bridge in California not under the control of the state legislature, and any measures to construct a preventative suicide barrier are required to go through the Golden Gate Bridge District.

“The board policy is that funding will not come from our toll revenues,” said Mary Currie, Bridge District spokeswoman. “Some of the various area public advocates, with our support, are trying to get legislation changes to include federal funding for suicide barrier projects so the project will be eligible for possible future federal funding.”

Currie was not available to respond when asked how the Bridge District was supporting these public advocates.

In 2008, shortly after 1,000 people had been recorded jumping to their deaths, the Bridge District held a slew of public meetings to discuss the possibility of installing a barrier. Along with mental health professionals and spiritual leaders, several families of suicide victims came forward to appeal to the board.

“Sharing their pain publicly really influenced the issue,” Bateson says.

According to San Francisco Police Department patrol officers, routine sweeps of the walkway are made hourly across the Golden Gate Bridge to ensure the safety of visiting tourists and to keep an eye out for potential suicide attempts. Photo by Nick Moone.

Although the motion to install a barrier was approved, the Bridge District has denied responsibility for securing the funds to implement any changes. From this inaction, advocacy groups set on securing funding through donations and federal means have emerged, including the Bridge Rail Foundation.

“(The goal is) to get the suicide barrier installed, or the net in this case,” said Paul Muller, a board member of the Bridge Rail Foundation in regard to the latest preventative measure on the table.

Muller, who owns a marketing firm in San Francisco, was introduced to the issue of suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge by a group of psychiatrists he was doing business with.

“I became pretty outraged,” Muller says, recalling personal stories he was told about suicide victims. “It’s a deadly scandal that’s gone on and on and on.”

Although the Bridge District spent $5 million on a barrier for bicyclists and intends to install a $25 million movable median barrier to prevent traffic collisions, the $45 million suicide barrier is still far more costly.

But Holmes said the cost of the suicide barrier is more monetarily practical in preventing bridge-related deaths.

“In the past ten years three people have died (on the Golden Gate Bridge) from head-on collisions, and in one month four people have died from jumping off the bridge,” Holmes said.

The aesthetic appeal of the Golden Gate Bridge is also of concern to those who believe installing a barrier would curtail tourism and damage the international image of the monument.

“Tourism wouldn’t be as good because it wouldn’t look nice,” said Bobby Marquez, a 23-year-old senior and marketing major at San Francisco State University. He instead suggests implementing more safety procedures, such as having somebody on “suicide watch.”

But Bateson argues in the case of the Bloor Street Viaduct bridge in Toronto the aesthetics were voted by popular opinion to have been improved by the suicide barrier.

The effectiveness of a barrier has also been debated, as many people believe suicide will occur regardless of the barrier.

Bateson disagrees. “Most people have preferred means of death,” he says. “And when deterred [they] will not attempt to kill themselves another way.”

In 1978 Richard Seiden of the Univeristy of California-Berkeley conducted a study on the 515 people who were stopped from jumping, in various ways, off the Golden Gate Bridge since 1937. Over 94 percent were still alive and many that were not had died of natural causes.

“If it’s to prevent more people from committing suicide then yeah it’s a good idea,” says Jeff Birnbaum, a 2o-year-old junior and BECA major. “I think that it’ll work.”

Despite the fact that actions must be taken to prevent suicides on the Golden Gate Bridge, the complicated and unusual political situation has been the biggest obstacle in securing funding to make a suicide barrier a reality.

“There are no checks and balances anymore, just roadblocks, barriers, hurdles,” Holmes says.

RELATED LINKS:

http://goldengate.org/ Find out everything you ever wanted to know about the Golden Gate Bridge here.
http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ Find out more about suicide from the National Suicide Prevention Life Line.

This post was edited and re-packaged by Michelle La Vone from the University of Tennessee. Contact mlavone@utk.edu for any questions or concerns.

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