San Franscico's Golden Gate Bridge ranks among America's most popular and beloved pieces of infrastructure. The span is frequented by about 9 million people annually, including motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians enjoying the view along the 4200-foot span.
Unfortunately, the bridge also attracts people looking not to have the time of their lives, but to end their lives.
Since it opened to traffic 70 years ago, more than 1300 people have committed suicide by leaping off the bridge into the bay below. A patrol instituted in 1996 reduced the annual number of suicides, but not by much. Public officials have debated placing “suicide barriers” around the bridge to deter these deaths, but most have argued that such a measure would be too costly.
Eric Steel's documentary The Bridge serves as a counterpoint to that position. Steel led a team of filmmakers in recording the bridge around the clock in 2004, capturing the deaths of 24 people who took their lives there that year. They then profiled the victims by interviewing survivors—friends and family left behind to wonder why their loved ones decided to take such final action.
According to Steel, infrastructure managers in San Franscisco and across the country could avoid such pain by placing the barriers on their bridges.
“As the recent tragedy in Minneapolis showed, our infrastructure is in grave need of repair and renovation,” says Steel. “Suicide barriers should be included in all considerations of infrastructure overhaul.”
Suicide barriers are costly—an ongoing study into the possibility of placing one at the Golden Gate Bridge estimates the cost at $25 million—but in numerous cases they have proven effective. For example, Augusta, Maine's Memorial Bridge was host to 14 suicides before a safety fence was installed in 1983. In the 24 years since the fence went up, no suicides have occurred.
Then there's exposure to litigation. While families of Golden Gate Bridge suicides have only brought a handful of lawsuits against the city, and all of them have been dismissed, defense of those suits still carries a significant price tag.
However, the cost of human lives is also at stake. Michelle Linn-Gust, survivor division chair for the American Association of Suicidology, agrees that installing barriers is just one action that infrastructure managers can—and should—take to abate that cost.
“From what I've heard and seen, they're effective,” she says. “So is having phones on the bridges for people to make contact. It's all about reaching people at that critical time before they do something.”
And, Steel says, protecting lives is a critical, but often forgotten, role that public works departments play.
“The obligation of public works administrators is to protect public safety,” he says.