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Why Is It Easier to Put a Traffic Barrier on the Golden Gate Than a Suicide Barrier?

Scott Lucas | September 19, 2013 | Story Politics

This morning, the Chronicle reported that after 15 years of planning, the Board of Directors of the Golden Gate Bridge is expected to approve the installation of a movable steel and concrete barrier that would separate opposite-direction traffic on the bridge.

But anti-suicide activists like Kevin Hines (whom we wrote about recently, as did Time) are unhappy that a traffic barrier is going up before a suicide barrier, a long-debated and controversial proposal to install a net or railing to cut down on the number of bridge suicides. "One death in 2001," Hines said, referring to the last head-to-head traffic fatality on the Golden Gate. "What a joke. One person dies there by suicide every ten days."

Since 1970, sixteen people have died in head-to-head crashes on the bridge, with the most recent indeed occurring in 2001. That's compared to 33 suicides from the Bridge in 2012, according to the Bridge Rail Foundation, a Sausalito-based organization that advocates for a barrier. That number has held constant for the last several years, with 37 in 2011, 32 in 2010, 31 in 2009, and 34 in 2008. In total, about 1600 people have killed themselves by jumping off of the Bridge since it opened in 1937.

Evidence from bridge suicide barriers in Washington D.C.; Augusta, Maine; and Auckland, New Zealand indicates that such barriers reduce the suicide rates at the sites and in the surrounding region. But mental health advocates have long been stymied by opponents to the barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge, who question its cost and efficacy, and worry about it marring the bridge's beauty.

Bridge spokesperson Mary Currie says that this isn't a matter of choosing a median barrier over a suicide barrier. The two projects, she says, "are on separate tracks. Our Board of Directors authorized us to work on the traffic median barrier in the late '90s. It didn't authorize the exploration of a suicide barrier until 2004."

The disparity in timing and funding between the two projects has anti-suicide activists concerned about the agency's priorities. Says Hines, "I am currently speaking all over the East Coast to military, colleges, and conferences on a book tour, and everyone wonders why the bridge has no net or barrier. This is a public health crisis. People here are baffled by San Francisco's inaction for over 75 years of needless death."

The Bridge district is on target to complete a $5 million final design effort for an anti-suicide system by the end of 2013, using money allocated by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in 2010. Efforts by Senator Barbara Boxer now allow up to $50 million in federal money to be spent, although those funds have not yet been allocated. Board policy disallows the use of toll funds to be spent on a suicide barrier. At present, the Golden Gate may be closed for a weekend during the installation of the traffic barrier, which is expected to cost $26.5 million dollars.

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