Golden Gate Bridge Suicides

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The Golden Gate Bridge facing northwest. Fort Point is in the foreground.

The historic Golden Gate Bridge is San Francisco’s most recognizable landmark and the most iconic bridge in the world. But the bridge has an imperfection that must be corrected.

Every day, more than 100,000 people cross the Art Deco style masterpiece via foot, bike, or vehicle. But an average of two people per month never make it to the other side alive. At least 1,600 people have died after leaping from the bridge, making it the top suicide location in the world.  At just 4-foot tall, the railing along the bridge’s walkways doesn’t do much to stop jumpers from taking the 220 foot plunge into the chilly San Francisco Bay waters below. (The story goes that the railings were originally supposed to be 5.5 feet tall, but chief engineer Joseph Strauss was 5-foot, 3-inches tall and wanted to be able to peer over the top.) Trained crisis officers do patrol the bridge to talk down potential jumpers, and they have prevented a number of deaths. But they can’t watch every inch of the bridge 24/7.

I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge by bicycle for the first time a couple months ago and was surprised at how easy it would be to fall off. It was a weekday in the early afternoon, so all pedestrians and cyclists were crammed on to the east (bayside) walkway, which is only 10 feet wide in most places. It appeared easy for a biker to crash in to an oblivious picture-snapping tourist or get hit by a blast of wind and careen over the short railing. No doubt the low rail is a draw to those seeking a simple death.

The suicidal often are often attracted to landmark structures, because they provide them with the notoriety in death they may have lacked in life. Few people jump from the Bay Bridge, which links San Francisco to Oakland, because it’s not nearly as famous as the nearby Golden Gate. Similarly, recognizable landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, and the Notre Dame Cathedral all have been scenes of a considerable number of suicides. These victims could have chosen more accessible places to end their lives, but they were fixated on those landmarks.

Those who plan to jump off tall bridges like the Golden Gate envision a quick, pain free death. But that’s not always the case. Some who hit the water at 75 mph survive the plunge with shattered bones and sliced up organs. Incapacitated, they drown. Some bodies are never discovered and are slowly picked apart by marine life–fish, crabs, sharks. Other leapers never make it to the water and slam in to the rocks instead.

There have been a number of movements over the decades to add barriers on the Golden Gate, but, surprisingly, in a region with a reputation as a progressive stronghold, the proposals have been repeatedly shot down . A section of 8-foot-tall curved fencing has been added to the railing above Fort Point, but that was added so people on the bridge can’t throw items on fort visitors below. Opponents say the suicidal are going to find a way to kill themselves no matter how much is spent to dissuade them, and it’s better for them to die quickly and cleanly with little risk to others. But a study on Golden Gate Bridge suicide survivors found that the majority regretted their decisions shortly after falling, and they never try again.  Others coldly argue changes to the bridge will ruin its aesthetics and hinder tourism.

Safety should always take precedent over historic integrity–especially design flaws like the low railing along the Golden Gate Bridge.  The latest proposal calls for a $45 million suicide prevention barrier, but funding remains an issue. Until it is actually installed, it will sit among the countless other failed efforts to deter bridge deaths. Enclosures now surround visitors at the Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, and the Notre Dame Cathedral. The obstacles do little to the design and have deterred an unknown number of people from taking their lives. It’s time for the Golden Gate Bridge to follow suit.

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It was completed in 1937.

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Curved fencing lines the bridge above Fort Point, but not along most of the bridge.

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The railing is only this tall in most places.

Links

The New Yorker wrote an excellent article on Golden Gate Bridge jumpers in 2003.

Recent Slate article that supports the suicide prevention barrier.

The Bridge Rail Foundation.

Short film on bridge jumpers.

The “Final Leap” is a book about Golden Gate jumpers.

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