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Preventing That Long, Last Leap

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Posted: Friday, May 27, 2016 3:41 pm

On a recent Saturday evening, the San Diego-Coronado Bridge was closed to traffic again, this time for about four hours because of a person contemplating and then committing an act of suicide by jumping from the span. During this lengthy period, traffic had to be diverted around the Silver Strand inconveniencing thousands of people. And they could consider themselves fortunate for not being stuck on the bridge in their cars while the incident dragged on, as happens often, while police and negotiators try to talk the suicidal person out of jumping. This can take hours, trapping people, including pregnant women, the ill and elderly, without toilet facilities or aid in the event of a medical or other emergency. Police apparently feel compelled sometimes to close all lanes on the bridge because some heartless person would be apt to shout “Jump!”

In addition to the inconvenience for thousands of people, the possible health and sanitation issues, the missed appointments and flights, the effects on the environment because of vehicles idling while running air conditioners, plus the wasted fuel and time involved, there is the cost of deploying dozens of police officers and police cars to block access, handle the traffic and attempt to stop the jumper. There is also the cost of counsellors and the expense and trauma of recovering the remains of the jumper from the bay. Coronado is home to a major naval complex and is homeport to two aircraft carriers and numerous other naval commands. Most naval personnel stationed or home-ported in Coronado live elsewhere and rely on the bridge to get to work on time. In the event of a military emergency, bridge closure could become a security issue.

Sixteen people died jumping from the bridge last year alone so the annual cost is significant. The greater cost, of course, is the loss of human lives. Life is precious and every suicide is a tragedy, especially if it’s preventable, so we must feel compassion for the tortured souls who feel driven to such a desperate act. Since its opening in 1969, more than 300 people have perished jumping from this bridge making it the third deadliest bridge in the nation. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge has the dubious distinction of being the deadliest with over 1600 jumping deaths. Not every jump is fatal although most are. Some survive the leap into San Diego Bay, horribly crippled and in pain. Hitting the water from 200 feet is almost like hitting the ground. It is not a pleasant way to end life.

For several years, a suicide barrier of some sort has been proposed for the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, perhaps similar to the one that is expected to be in place on the Golden Gate Bridge by 2019. Public opinion, as usual, is divided with one recent survey showing over half the respondents (57%) opposed. Issues include cost and aesthetics with many opponents fearing it would detract from the graceful appearance of the bridge.

Also recently, a proposal to provide decorative lighting for the bridge support piers and underside has found favor. The San Diego Unified Port District commissioners have just approved a new policy aimed at raising $8 million for such a project through port tenant construction projects.

I’m sure the lighting would be lovely but wouldn’t the money be better spent in deterring suicides, given the cost in human lives, inconvenience to thousands and the annual cost involved in dealing with these tragedies? A barrier fencing system or safety nets could save hundreds of lives and the associated savings would eventually exceed the costs of installation. A barrier fencing system could be decorative but it would, admittedly, detract somewhat from the clean, graceful lines of the bridge. But what matters more, aesthetics or saving lives and the considerable expense of dealing with these frequent incidents?

Our bridge, unfortunately, is a suicide magnet. Compassion for the victims is not enough. We must do more to prevent suicides and ensure that this essential transportation link stays open 24/7. If $8 million can be found for decorative lighting, surely a way can be found to erect suicide barriers or netting. Being in the record books for having the third deadliest bridge in the nation is not something for a community to be proud of.

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