Net would hinder bridge suicides

On paper, at least, a 20-foot-wide steel net installed 20 feet below the Golden Gate Bridge walkway seems the best suicide prevention device now under consideration. This new netting concept would be far less disfiguring to the iconic bridge’s appearance than the 12-foot-high fences in the four competing designs. And it wouldnot cost more than the $40 million to $50 million for the alternatives.

Jumping off romantically scenic Golden Gate Bridge has been a popular suicide method since the span opened in 1937. The death total is about 1,250, with a long-term average of 20 to 22 jumpers yearly — almost two per month. However, recent years seem to have brought a bridge-suicide boom, with 34 bodies recovered in 2006 and 38 in 2007.

Calls arose early for a suicide barrier, but were defeated every time. Typical objections raised issues of individual moral responsibility and artistic debasement of a world-renowned historic landmark. Until now, the bridge’s only safety barrier is the 4-foot-high handrail. Those ugly chain-link panels at the San Francisco end are just there to stop clueless visitors from throwing debris down onto Fort Point.

But under long pressure from suicide-prevention advocates, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District commissioned this week’s environmental report. After two July public hearings, the board is expected to vote for a selection in autumn. Of course, the Golden Gate district does not have a spare $50 million available to fund any suicide barriers. But deciding how to proceed is a necessary step toward getting anything accomplished.

At least we now found that bridge authorities already have answers to some of the less obvious questions about the nets. Our major concern was whether anything would prevent a determined suicidal person from jumping 20 feet down to the netting and then crawling over the edge to finish the job.

Officials responded that the stainless steel link sections were designed to sag from a jumper’s impact, forming a pouch that would be difficult to escape by someone presumably somewhat injured and in pain from a 20-foot leap. According to San Francisco Suicide Prevention, the majority of the Golden Gate Bridge jumps are impulsive acts that could be prevented by getting the person through that worst moment of desperation — which the shock of jumping 20 feet into steel netting seems likely to do.

It also was encouraging to learn that similar netting was installed nine years ago on Munster Terrace, a high structure in Bern, Switzerland. There have no suicide attempts since, possibly due to the barrier’s discouraging appearance.

Finally, it was good to know that Golden Gate Bridge officials plan to space the net links as widely as 10 inches apart — so that the netting does not become an ugly repository for trash tossed over the railing.

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