The suicide magnet that is the Golden Gate Bridge
There were 10 confirmed suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge in August. It was the most suicides in any month in the bridge’s history.
Monday, Tuesday, suicide. Thursday, Friday, suicide. Sunday, Monday, suicide. Over and over, a suicide every three days.
The 10th was a 17-year-old girl from Marin County.
This information doesn’t come from the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District. The district considers itself the official source of all information related to the bridge — except information on suicides. The number comes from the coroner who does the autopsies.
One reason the bridge has so many suicides is its magnetic appeal. Suicide sites tend to draw despairing people to them, and the numbers show that the Golden Gate Bridge exerts a stronger pull than anywhere else.
Another reason may be the mistaken belief that jumping from the bridge results in a quick, near-certain death with no messy clean-up. In fact, 5% of jumpers survive the impact and subsequently drown, their bodies retrieved by Coast Guard crews. A handful survive — miraculously — but they usually suffer permanent physical injuries.
A third reason is because access is easy. There are parking lots at both ends of the bridge and year-round walkways for pedestrians and bicyclists. One doesn’t need to procure a firearm, stockpile drugs or learn how to tie a noose. One just needs to go to the bridge and jump.
The most important reason, though, is because the existing railing is only 4 feet high. Anyone can climb over it, from a 5-year-old girl — the bridge’s youngest official suicide — to people in their 80s.
In 2008, Golden Gate Bridge District officials approved the addition of a net under the bridge to prevent suicides. However, they have never approved any funding for the net’s construction. They did just approve more than $25 million in construction fees for a new median barrier even though there hasn’t been a fatal head-on crash on the bridge in 12 years, and only 16 since 1970. As a result, the Golden Gate Bridge continues to be the only major international suicide landmark without a barrier.
In recent years, an average of three people a month have jumped from the bridge. Imagine if three people died every month in cable car accidents in San Francisco, or in falls from the bleachers at Dodger Stadium, or in traffic collisions at an unregulated intersection in Sacramento. The problem would be fixed immediately.
Now imagine that 10 people died in one month. There would be public outrage, harsh media stories and lawsuits — but not where the Golden Gate Bridge is concerned.
The No. 1 suicide site in the world — the Golden Gate Bridge — is in our backyard and no one seems to care. We’re closing in on 2,000 suicides from the bridge and there hasn’t been a peep, not from the public, the bridge district, city officials.
There are those who believe that a suicide barrier won’t make any difference, that if people want to kill themselves and can’t do it from the bridge, they will resort to other means. Though this makes sense intuitively, it’s absolutely false. Research shows that most suicidal people fixate on one means of death. If that means isn’t available to them, they don’t choose another means. Instead, they choose to live.
Of the small number of people who have survived jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge, nearly all have said afterward that it was the Golden Gate Bridge or nothing. They didn’t have a Plan B.
A UC Berkeley professor tracked what happened to 515 people who were stopped from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Twenty-five years later, 94% of them were still alive or had died by means other than suicide. Fewer than 6% went on to kill themselves.
This suggests that nine of the 10 people who jumped last month would still be alive if the Golden Gate Bridge had a suicide deterrent. At least 68 of the 72 people who died jumping from the bridge in the last two years also would be alive.
One explanation for the recent increase in suicides is that toll collection for the bridge has been completely automated. Many potential jumpers are seen first by passing motorists. They used to inform toll collectors, who alerted the police, who in turn sometimes could prevent jumpers from making the leap. This year, when the bridge converted exclusively to FasTrak, the motorists have had no one to tell.
There is no reason for another terrible month of suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge district should reexamine its priorities and press forward on the construction of the safety net. It would forever end the association between suicide and the world’s most famous suicide span.
John Bateson is executive director of John F. Kennedy University’s community counseling centers and former executive director of a 24-hour crisis center in the Bay Area. He is the author of “The Final Leap: Suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge.”
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