More people have committed suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge than on any other structure in the world—someone jumps from the bridge to their death about every two weeks. But those figures could be dramatically reduced if a proposed suicide-prevention barrier is installed later this year, as advocates hope.
If you've walked over the bridge, or even seen it in movies, you know just how easy it is to climb from the pedestrian walkway over the low railing. On the other side of the railing, there is a 32-inch wide beam known as "the chord." This is often the place most people pause to ponder their jump. It's also where good design can intervene.
The proposed solution—developed by HNTB Corporation and called the "net system"—is indeed a net, made from stainless steel cable that would extend 20 feet below and 20 feet out from the chord. It would contract when someone drops into it, essentially trapping the would-be jumper. A truck with a retractable arm would then be able to scoop people out, but apparently this would not be a very frequent occurrence as the net itself should act as a deterrent.
A rendering of the proposed solution, called the "net system"
According to the Contra Costa Times, a similar net was placed on a cathedral in Bern, Switzerland 10 years ago and no suicides have been reported since. A study also showed that suicides did not increase on sites nearby.
Such a barrier has been discussed for decades—with solutions ranging from a better motion-sensing warning system, to an impenetrable web of thin cables, to raising the railing itself to make it more difficult to climb—but the plan now seems to be moving forward quickly as the majority of the funding has been allocated for the $66 million project. Because of her San Francisco roots, Senator Barbara Boxer fought to include funding for mandatory safety rails and nets for bridges in a 2012 transportation bill; advocates expect the bill will provide about $44 million for the barrier. This week, the bridge delegation asked the state legislature for another $11 million.
Unbelievably, a barrier has been opposed by many locals; in a 2008 poll, 75 percent of San Franciscans said they didn't want it. Some say they don't want the city to bear the financial burden, which might still happen if these funds fall through. But this does bring up an important point. Should the city even be responsible for the suicides? And should that responsibility be formalized as an act of taxpayer-funded infrastructure?
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But many San Franciscans still worry—rightly so—that the aesthetic beauty of the bridge and its attractiveness to tourists will be marred by a barrier. This solution seems less like a cage that will change the bridge experience and much more like the typical safety nets that are quite commonplace on many well-visited monuments. It will most likely not ruin any views. My only question is if people will try somehow to jump over it—20 feet does not seem that wide.
The debate about the barrier was part of the 2006 documentary, The Bridge, where filmmaker Eric Steel filmed the bridge for one year and therefore also captured footage of 24 people who chose to end their lives there. (Even this excerpt is heart-wrenching and difficult to watch.) I often think of a story in "Jumpers," a 2003 New Yorker article by Tad Friend which interviewed many of the approximately 26 people who have survived the fall. Most of them said they regretted their decisions mid-air, like Ken Baldwin: "I instantly realized that everything in my life that I'd thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped."
If it was possible to design something that could save even one of the 1,500 people who killed themselves on the bridge since it opened in 1937, shouldn't San Francisco have already done it? [Contra Costa Times]
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images