Caltrans plans to install small spikes on the San Diego-Coronado Bridge as a temporary suicide deterrent while it pursues a permanent barrier.
The spikes, similar to those used to prevent pigeons from roosting on ledges and roofs, would sit atop the short wall that now lines the bridge, where more than 400 people have jumped to their deaths since it opened in 1969.
Officials hope to have them installed within one year.
“I think it’s a start, and something is better than nothing,” said Wayne Strickland, a retired Coronado firefighter and president of the Bridge Collaborative for Suicide Prevention, a grassroots group that has been leading the push for barriers. “The way it is now, it’s just too easy, and that’s why people go there.”
Caltrans announced the temporary measure as it released a final feasibility study this week that showed a barrier would be “suitable” for the bridge, which is one of the region’s most iconic structures but may soon surpass the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco as the nation’s deadliest span for suicides.
The year-long study explored almost a dozen deterrent options, several of them patterned after barriers that have worked on bridges in other places.
They include mesh fences, glass panels and spike-like “thistles” that would be six to eight feet high, as well as a steel net, similar to what is being installed on the Golden Gate Bridge, that would sit about 20 feet below the roadway surface.
Caltrans will now narrow the choices, calculate the costs — the estimated price tag for the various options ranges from $30 million to $137 million — and identify possible funding sources.
Add in the necessary environmental reviews and approvals from regulatory agencies and it could be five to 10 years before a permanent barrier is in place, said Ed Joyce, a Caltrans spokesman.
Many in Coronado are tired of waiting, and Caltrans acknowledged the “significant community concern” as it moved forward this week.
Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey said he thinks temporary spikes could deter both suicides and attempted suicides. Dozens of times every year, the bridge is shut down as emergency crews try to stop someone from jumping, creating traffic snarls that in the past have lasted up to 12 hours, he said. On average, 83,000 cars cross the bridge daily.
“For many years, suicide has been a very taboo topic but we’ve finally made it through the threshold of having an open, honest conversation about it,” Bailey said. “Now we have leaders on both sides of the bridge stepping forward and saying, ‘We need to do something.’”
Joyce said the height and type of temporary spikes to be used hasn’t been determined, but the plan is to install them along the 7,400 feet of the bridge that crosses the bay. Caltrans is counting on any visual, historical or other impacts to be minor enough to qualify the project for an exemption from full environmental review.
Cost of the spikes would be about $100,000 to $300,000, Joyce said. They would be in place for no more than five years. Officials said they hope the obstructions would at least slow someone contemplating suicide long enough to reconsider, or to allow emergency crews or others to intervene.
Caltrans got the idea to use spikes from Coronado resident Eric Dawson, a retired attorney who suggested it as a temporary measure during a public outreach meeting the transportation agency held on the island in August.
“The bird spikes are not intended to act as a physical barrier like a fence,” he wrote in a subsequent note to the agency. “Instead, if they work, it will be because they provide a visual, psychological deterrent.”
He said some people determined to jump from the bridge will find a way over the obstructions, but the “threat of injury” from the spikes might be enough to dissuade others.
That’s part of the thinking behind the steel nets being installed on the Golden Gate Bridge. Someone will still be able to go over the side, but it will be a two-story drop into the net — likely to cause injury, not death.
Dawson noted that a similar net installed at Muenster Terrace in Bern, Switzerland, has stopped suicides there. No one has attempted to drop first into the net and then jump again — proof, Dawson said, that “it acts more as a psychological barrier than a physical one.”
Some Coronado residents have been pushing for three decades for something to be done, scarred by the suicides and their ripple effects through the community.
In a city with just 25,000 residents, many know someone who has died or their survivors. They know the emergency crews who recover the bodies. They’ve seen cars abandoned on the bridge, or been caught in traffic during bridge closures.
Wilkens is a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune.