Golden Gate Bridge median is a great step for safety; now it is time to build suicide barrier

Mike Koozmin/s.f. examiner file photoFollowing the installation of a new median barrier to help prevent head-on collisions on the iconic Golden Gate Bridge

Mike Koozmin/s.f. examiner file photoFollowing the installation of a new median barrier to help prevent head-on collisions on the iconic Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge, one of San Francisco's most famous icons and a vital commuter link for tens of thousands of daily motorists between The City and North Bay, is a safer structure this week because of a new lane divider that was installed last weekend.

The improved bridge was outfitted with 12-inch-wide, 32-inch-high concrete-filled steel barriers, replacing the flimsy yellow plastic markers along the 1.7-mile span. The barrier can be shifted to assist peak traffic flows.

The project's $30.3 million budget — $20 million from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, $1.38 million from the federal government and about $5.1 million from toll revenue — is certainly money well-spent. The old plastic markers did little to prevent head-on collisions or give much peace of mind to drivers negotiating the narrow lanes.

The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District has tallied 128 head-on collisions on the bridge, resulting in 16 deaths, since 1970.

Now that we are rightfully congratulating ourselves for taking this important step to safeguard drivers, we must recognize that we as a metropolitan region have been negligent for far too long when it comes to a far more deadly safety issue on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Since the bridge opened in 1937, it has been the location for more than 1,600 confirmed suicides. Rough estimates put the actual toll as high as 2,500 suicides.

Why the discrepancy? As John Bateson wrote in his 2012 book “The Final Leap” examining the history of suicides on the bridge: “That number only begins to tell the story, though. Many times a body isn't ever found. Ocean currents are strong in and around San Francisco Bay, and a person's remains can be carried out to sea long before anyone can recover them. Without a body, an autopsy can't be performed and death can't be confirmed, even if the person's car is located in a bridge parking lot and there's a suicide note.”

Whether it is 1,600 or 2,500 or an even larger number, it is far too many and grossly higher than the head-on collision count.

Bateson points out that “the Golden Gate Bridge is the top suicide site on Earth and the only international landmark without a suicide barrier.”

It is high time a suicide barrier be installed on the bridge, and it looks like that day is finally approaching. Last month, the bridge district board of directors approved the final design for a suicide barrier.

As the Marin Independent Journal recently reported, we have been talking about the need for a safety barrier on the bridge as long ago as the 1950s, and the first serious attempts to install something dates back to the early 1970s, when 18 designs were created and then shelved. Serious movement on the median barrier only began in the mid-1990s.

The current plan is to build a $76 million steel cable net that extends 20 feet below and 20 feet out from the southern side of the span overlooking San Francisco's skyline. It would take three years to install. A contract is out to bid now.

“The center median is great and it will certainly impact lives,” Bateson told The San Francisco Examiner this week. “But the truth is the deaths from suicide are more numerous than from accidents. It's a great opportunity to make the bridge safe for everyone — not just motorists, but pedestrians and people who go to the bridge battling inner demons.”

It is true, of course, that for the most part the traffic barrier will save the lives of those who have no intention of dying while a suicide net would protect those who are seeking to end their lives. But those troubled people are no less deserving of our protection and care, and it is shameful that some argue to the contrary. The Golden Gate Bridge, one of the true engineering marvels of the 20th century, has become a morbid landmark that we would be well served to reclaim.

“I would prefer a taller railing rather than a net, but a net will definitely save lives,” Bateson said of the new design. “And that's really the bottom line: suicide is preventable. It's the most preventable form of death, and a net on the bridge will save lives.”

Unfortunately, the naysayers resort to an oft-cited yet wrongheaded argument against a net: suicidal people will kill themselves no matter what. However, research has shown that suicidal people tend to focus on a single method of death and if that means is not available, they typically do not resort to other options.

Bateson referred to UC Berkeley public-health professor Richard Seiden's 1978 study of 515 people who had been stopped from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Only 6 percent went on to die by suicide after their failed jump.

The net will also protect potential passers-by, Coast Guard staff and bridge patrol officers from confronting the traumatic and ghastly experience of witnessing a jump or needing to recover a body.

“The Golden Gate Bridge by virtue of its international fame really has the opportunity to become a model for problematic bridges around the world,” Bateson told The Examiner. “That's why the net on the bridge is so important. It not only sends a message to the local community that we care about the health and well-being of everyone, not just those who are of a mentally sound frame of mind, but it also sends a message to the rest of the world that there is a way to end suicide from a popular destination, and it can be done effectively and relatively simply.”

It has taken far too long for the bridge district to send that message. Thankfully the median is now safer for bridge motorists, and if current plans progress, we will, in three years' time, have a Golden Gate Bridge that fully deserves its right as a symbol of our city.


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