San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge looks poised to get a safety net to prevent suicides, something that various people and organizations have been requesting for over 60 years. Since the Bridge was first opened in 1937 approximately 1,600 people have committed suicide by jumping off the bridge, more than any other location in the world. In 2013, 46 people committed suicide from the bridge (that authorities know about) and another 118 were talked down or otherwise stopped from jumping by bridge workers.
In May of this year authorities will vote on the installation of a safety net that will be 20 feet below the walkway and is estimated to cost $66 million US dollars. The proposal seems likely to pass.
Arguments against installing some type of guard railing or safety net have included concerns about negatively impacting the bridge’s appearance and assertions that suicidal individuals will simply find some other way of committing suicide and therefore a safety net would not actually save lives. Scientific studies examining means restrictions on suicides clearly indicate that lives will be saved if safety measures are put in place on the Golden Gate Bridge. In addition, work done by Richard Seiden at UC Berkeley looking at individuals that have been stopped from jumping and those that have survived the jump has revealed that the vast majority (over 90%) do not go on to commit suicide by other means. All of this research has been summarized nicely by the Bridge Rail Foundation, an organization devoted to installing a safety net and preventing suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge.
Why has it taken so long when there has clearly been a need for a safety net? The policy process is complex and it is difficult to say for certain but the media is referencing the recent increase in the number of suicides as motivation. It can’t hurt that in 2012 the federal government passed legislation making federal funding available for the construction of safety barriers on bridges. This is an interesting example of the complex interplay of science, misinformation, advocacy, and incentives in policy outcomes of public health consequence. Too bad it took 60 years.