The Golden Gate: A Bridge Too Deadly?

The California Highway Patrol sought a higher railing for the Golden Gate Bridge shortly after it was opened in 1937.
The California Highway Patrol sought a higher railing for the Golden Gate Bridge shortly after it was opened in 1937. (By Eric Risberg -- Associated Press)
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By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 3, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO -- The day Ken Baldwin decided to kill himself, he drove past his office and proceeded directly to the Golden Gate Bridge. Gazing at the Pacific Ocean over a railing only four feet high, he found the sole remaining impediment to his death was his own willpower, which turned out to be fleeting.

"I counted to 10, and I couldn't do it," Baldwin said. "And I counted to 10 again, and I vaulted over.

"And my hands were the last thing to leave, and once they left, I thought: 'This is the worst decision I've ever made in my life.' "

By surviving the leap, Baldwin defied the odds: Of the more than 1,300 people who have leapt from the Golden Gate, 98 percent have indeed perished. But in living to tell the tale, Baldwin also upended the stubborn assumptions that have kept the bridge's railings so easy to climb over, and have maintained the magnificent structure's status as by far the most lethal suicide site in America, if not the world.

The assumptions -- including the deeply held but incorrect belief that the suicidal are determined to die -- are as stubborn as the boutique agency that governs the Golden Gate. Last year, at least 37 people died after jumping from the bridge, a suicide every 10 days. Yet for seven decades, the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District has pushed aside evidence that prompted the construction of effective barriers on other bridges and landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Aurora Bridge in Seattle, the Bloor Street Viaduct in Toronto, the District's Duke Ellington Bridge and, most recently, the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge outside Santa Barbara, Calif.

There, the state transportation agency that controls every bridge in California except the Golden Gate is hastening to install a barrier on a span with 1,250 fewer fatalities. CalTrans officials point to a University of California survey's finding that nine out of 10 people prevented from jumping off the Golden Gate were still alive years later or had died of natural causes, despite the rationale that a barrier would prompt them only to "go somewhere else to end it."

The study is part of a growing body of scientific literature that explodes persistent myths about suicide while reinforcing a simple principle: When it is harder to kill oneself, fewer people do so.

The findings, some of which date back a quarter-century, have yet to persuade the bridge district, which is governed by a board of 19 people appointed from the nine counties that floated the bonds to build the Golden Gate 71 years ago. The first public plea for a higher railing came just 18 months later, from the California Highway Patrol.

"Where suicide is concerned, misdirection and delay have been the modus operandi of the bridge district for years and years," said David Hull, whose daughter Kathy leapt from the Golden Gate five years ago. Hull heads the Bridge Rail Foundation, an advocacy group formed by grieving parents, mental health advocates and the coroner from Marin County, which sits on the side of the bridge where most of the bodies wash up.

Under the weight of the scientific evidence, media reports and lobbying by groups such as Hull's, the bridge district is seriously considering a variety of possible barriers, including a net.

"If you took a vote today, it could go either way," said J. Dietrich Stroeh, a board member who has opposed the railing.

Opponents of a fence are wary of altering the appearance of an iconic structure that many local residents refer to as "my bridge." But their reluctance challenges San Francisco's progressive reputation. The bridge district this year found $25 million to install a movable median to divide two-way traffic on the bridge, where a total of five head-on collisions have claimed a single life since 1997.

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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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