A Simple Fix to the Golden Gate Bridge Would Save Hundreds of Lives

Health and medicine explained.
Oct. 15 2013 1:37 PM

Don’t Jump!

A simple fix to the Golden Gate Bridge would save hundreds of lives.

The north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge is seen surrounded by fog on September 8, 2013 in San Francisco, California.
The north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge surrounded by fog on Sept. 8, 2013, in San Francisco.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Shortly after 1 p.m. on March 8, San Francisco officials pulled the fully clothed body of a 56-year-old white man from the waves off secluded Marshall’s Beach, just south of the Golden Gate Bridge. Police found his car later that night in the parking lot west of the bridge toll plaza. Because no one saw him jump, the coroner’s report made no mention of suicide, even though an investigator told me the pattern of injuries and circumstances suggested “he most likely jumped off the bridge.”

What happened isn’t a mystery. The mystery is why we allowed it to happen.

The Golden Gate Bridge, with its mythic beauty, easy access, and promise of near-certain death, kills an average of 30 lost souls every year, making it among the most popular suicide sites on Earth. Unattached, middle-aged white men are the most frequent victims.

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Suicide kills more than 6,000 men in their 50s each year, a nearly 50 percent increase over the past decade. Though women are more likely than men to attempt suicide, four times as many men die by suicide. This grim disparity reflects women’s preference for drug overdoses, which allow time for life-saving interventions, and men’s penchant for more lethal means such as guns and jumping from high places, which don’t.

As surely as a leap from the Golden Gate Bridge kills—98 percent of jumpers die—barriers on suicide hot spots can save lives.

The evidence showing that bridge barriers work is “overwhelming,” says 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. Most people die the first time they try to kill themselves. The easiest way to prevent suicide is by restricting access to methods with a high risk of death, Clayton says—such as jumping from a bridge.

A 2013 meta-analysis led by Australian suicide expert Jane Pirkis reviewed studies of deterrents at suicide hot spots around the world. The interventions reduced suicides by jumping at the sites by about 85 percent. Although there was an uptick in jumping at neighboring sites in some cities in the decades after deterrents were erected, the dramatic drop in jumping at the hot spots led to reduced overall rates of suicide by jumping.

Proposals for suicide barriers on America’s legendary landmark date back to the 1950s, but no design stood a chance until 2005, when the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District relaxed its requirement that any deterrent be “totally effective.” Three years later, district officials approved a $45 million net system that would trap a jumper in its flexible stainless-steel cables. But they made their approval an empty gesture by refusing to earmark the toll revenues that typically finance 20 percent of bridge projects.

The district did, however, approve toll funds for a $26.5 million median to separate opposing lanes of traffic to prevent head-on collisions. Since 1970, 16 people have died when cars veered into oncoming traffic. Over the same period, more than 70 times as many—at least 1,129 people—have leapt to their deaths.

The confirmed count of people lost to suicide since the bridge opened in 1937 now tops 1,600. The number comes from bodies recovered. No one knows how many stole across the rail under cover of darkness or fog and washed out to sea on the ocean-bound current—or, like the man found off Marshall’s Beach, weren’t officially counted as jumpers. Most experts think the total death toll exceeds 2,000.

There is an enduring notion that if you erect a barrier on a suicide magnet, people will just go somewhere else. The idea that you can’t stop a suicidal individual is “absolutely false,” says Mel Blaustein, who as president of the Psychiatric Foundation of Northern California helped convince bridge officials to approve a deterrent. People often fixate on specific means of suicide, he says. For those drawn to the Golden Gate Bridge, the 4-foot rail suggests no one cares if they jump, as one note left on the bridge made painfully clear: “Why do you make it so easy?”

This myth that barriers don’t work was first debunked in 1978 in a landmark study by University of California­–Berkeley clinical psychologist Richard Seiden, who tracked the fates of 515 people restrained from jumping between 1937 and 1971. Although a few of the thwarted jumpers went on to kill themselves, 94 percent were either alive years later or had died of natural causes. Seiden concluded that the findings underscore the “crisis oriented” nature of suicide.

To better understand the suicidal impulse, a team led by an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention interviewed 153 people in a high-risk group: 13- to 34-year-olds who nearly died in a suicide attempt. A quarter of the survivors had acted within five minutes of the impulse to do so.