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Can a Safety Net Underneath the Golden Gate Bridge Save Lives?

April 2, 2014
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Can a Safety Net Underneath the Golden Gate Bridge Save Lives?
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
As statistics surge, city officials are ready to install a mesh net to deter suicides.

It’s an iconic image for San Francisco, and arguably for the entire state of California, but the Golden Gate Bridge is also a magnet for suicides. Suspended 220 feet over the channel that connects the San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean, its allure as a deadly jumping-off point has had people begging for a suicide barrier for 60 years.

This year, those pleas reached a fever pitch. A record 46 people jumped to their deaths from the bridge in 2013, and another 118 were stopped before they could. These numbers give the Golden Gate Bridge the dubious distinction as one of the most popular suicide destinations in the world, along with the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Unlike those international landmarks, the Golden Gate’s orange-red span lacks a suicide barrier. But as soon as this May, that could change. The New York Times reported this week that directors of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District are expected to approve construction of a steel mesh net 20 feet below the California landmark’s sidewalk.

So what finally changed San Francisco’s trademark “live and let live” philosophy (which so well applies to other aspects of city life) this year? For one, suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge are trending younger. That means there are more parents taking up arms against the bridge’s seemingly easy exit strategy. For another, the numbers just keep growing: The Bridge Rail Foundation, an advocacy group that publicizes annual bridge statistics and encourages a growing number of bereaved parents to tell their stories, counts 1,600 suicides since the bridge was built in 1937.

These days, there is a suicide or an attempt almost every other day off of the bridge. As advocacy groups like the Bridge Rail Foundation made their case more and more clear, the city finally took note. And their actions will likely have a positive impact. While critics of the plan point out that suicidal people will find another way to die if a mesh net foils their attempt, many experts note that suicidal impulses are usually ephemeral. The obstacle of a net may be just enough to change their minds.

“Scientific evidence says a barrier reduces suicides, because thoughts of suicide are transient,” Eve R. Meyer, executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention, told the Times. For years, she said, when she raised the issue of a barrier before the board, she was shunned. Now, her voice is finally being heard.

And as for those that worry a net or barrier will mar the bridge’s beauty, those concerns will likely be unfounded. According to the recent designs, the barrier will be invisible from most angles.

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