Stopping jumpers: What to do at the dam bridge?


There were no reported suicides from the Hoover Dam bypass bridge during the first year after the span opened. But four suicides this year - two within the past two weeks - have transportation officials wondering whether some preventive measures might now be appropriate.

Certainly no one wants the 900-foot-high engineering marvel to become a "suicide landmark" on the order of Niagara Falls, the Empire State Building and the Golden Gate Bridge.

In its 75 years of existence, 1,558 people have hurled themselves over the railing of the Golden Gate, the majority plunging nearly 700 feet to their death.

Nor is it necessarily true that someone stymied in their original intent of leaping from one of these landmarks will simply find another way to take their lives.

It seems counterintuitive, but Richard Seiden, a behavioral scientist and professor emeritus at Cal-Berkeley, conducted a study that found of 500 potential jumpers pulled from the Golden Gate Bridge railing, 94 percent are either still living or died from natural causes nearly three decades later. Of the 30 who jumped into the San Francisco Bay and survived the plunge, only three later took their own lives.

Mr. Seiden explains that most potential jumpers have a fantasy about how they want to die. and are unlikely to immediately go find another way to end their lives.

Most jumpers leap off the bay side of the Golden Gate Bridge, where pedestrians are permitted; the pathway on the ocean side is designated for bicyclists. But Seiden said he spoke with one man who wanted to jump from the ocean side but backed out of his plan.

"When I asked him why, he said 'I didn't want to cross the bridge and get hit by a car.' He had a fantasy in mind, and it takes a lot to switch it."

So what's the answer?

In 2008, San Francisco officials finally agreed to install a safety net below the four-foot railing on the Golden Gate. But the cost to do so on the 9,000-foot California span is expected to reach $45 million.

The price tag would probably be less for the 1,900-foot Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge. But beyond the mere aesthetic consideration of blocked views, how many millions are the taxpayers required to spend in attempts to stymie a handful of those dedicated to self-destruction?

Thirty-foot fences have been installed at Niagara Falls. Earlier this year, a man was able to jump anyway.

Suicide hotline phones have been proposed. Posting plain-language descriptions of the autopsies of jumpers, who may not always find the subsequent transition painless or instantaneous, could also be considered.

Certainly some creative, lower-cost alternatives should be tried first, before cash-strapped taxpayers are asked to cover millions for fences and nets that might or might not work.

 

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