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Saving People From Themselves
Nanny state by the bay...
[Thomas Lifson] 11/17/05

The nanny state is marked by an impulse to prevent people from making foolish decisions about their personal welfare. The very notion that wise public officials should make personal choices about the intimate details of foolish citizens’ lives is repugnant to me, so I greet most proposals to take away personal self-determination with grave skepticism.

I am, however, nearly persuaded that one such long-sought state intervention might be a good idea. It has nothing to do with medical care, smoking, nutrition, abortion, or any of the other typical hot button issues. I refer to the matter of a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Thomas Lifson

Thomas Lifson is a management consultant in Berkeley, California, specializing in US-Japanese management issues. A self-styled recovering academic, he graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in political science, and received a masters degree in East Asian studies from Harvard, an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School, where he was a Baker Scholar, and a doctorate in sociology from Harvard. He subsequently taught all three fields on the faculty at Harvard, and also taught economics at Columbia University’s Graduate School of International Affairs. He is a partner in the award-winning winery Sunset Cellars, in Alameda, California. Mr. Lifson is proprietor of the website American Thinker. [go to Lifson index]

Over twelve hundred people have leapt from the Golden Gate Bridge, 98% of them dying as a result. The pattern of jumps shows a definite cyclicality, and jumpers have chosen their departure point in non-random ways, most preferring to face the city, and  not one spot in particular drawing an especially large number. Many regard the Bridge as a “suicide magnet,” attracting people from elsewhere to obtain some sort of catharsis by leaping from one of the most beautiful and dramatic structures human ingenuity has yet produced.

I am in thrall to the Bridge’s beauty. It is an art deco masterpiece, as well as an engineering miracle. Construction was actually begun before all the technology necessary to build such a bridge had been invented. Its designers and builders faced heroic challenges in completing it, and many workers lost their lives. One construction worker who fell but lived was recently-deceased legendary ironworker Al Zampa, a member of what is called the “Halfway to Hell Club.” Today, the newest bridge across an arm of the Bay is a graceful suspension bridge bearing his name, a fitting tribute.

The taxpayers of San Francisco and Marin County put their homes on the line in borrowing the money necessary to construct it during the Depression. There were predictions of financial disaster, with property taxes forced upward in a time of tight money. But too little traffic has never been a problem for the Golden Gate Bridge. Today, its tolls support a vast system of public transport linking San Francisco and Marin County, including express busses and ferry boats, which are supposed to relieve traffic jams. In every sense, it is a landmark of human courage, creativity, and capability.

Initially, I was opposed to any alteration of the bridge, and figured that suicidal folk had every right to choose their point of departure from this mortal coil. Save for the occasional passing ship, nothing below was in a position to suffer damage. Nobody has ever jumped and hit a ship or boater.

But reading some of the arguments in the initial story of a promised series from the San Francisco Chronicle, I find certain data rather startling:

- Eighty-seven percent [of jumpers] are Bay Area residents—exploding the myth that people flock from around the world to die here.

- ...a study of 515 people who were prevented from jumping off the bridge…found that only 6 percent went on to kill themselves.

- In his original plans, chief engineer Joseph Strauss considered the bridge’s potential as a suicide site and designed railings 5 1/2 feet high. On May 7, 1936, a year before the opening of the bridge, Strauss boasted to the San Francisco Call-Bulletin that the bridge was “practically suicide-proof.”

“The guard rails,” he was quoted as saying, “are five feet and six inches high and are so constructed that any persons on the pedestrian walk could not get a handhold to climb over them. The intricate telephone and patrol systems will operate so efficiently that anyone acting suspiciously would be immediately surrounded. Suicide from the bridge is neither possible nor probable.”

By the time the bridge opened a year later, Strauss’ promise had evaporated. It’s unclear when the plans were modified, but at some point architect Irving Morrow, originally hired to design the entryways and bridge plazas, went to work on the guardrails. Morrow reduced them to 4 feet, and in doing so created a stage for decades of self-slaughter.

- The Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Empire State Building in New York, the Arroyo Seco Bridge in Pasadena and the Bloor Street Viaduct in Toronto were notorious suicide magnets until barriers were erected. Tellingly, when a suicide barrier was appended to the Bloor Street Viaduct—after 480 deaths in 85 years—people didn’t drift to another bridge and create a new suicide magnet.

“When suicide becomes difficult,” Meyer says, “people do not switch to another method. They tend to get help. This is what happened in England when the formula for gas ovens was changed”—carbon-monoxide levels were reduced—“and it became harder for people to purchase certain over-the-counter drugs. The suicide rate went down. England has a suicide rate half the size of ours because they’re so aggressive about it.”

Common sense, as well as my own brushes with despair, suggest that urges to self destruction are fleeting. The consequences of a successful suicide attempt, however, are not. It is very easy for even a bridge pedestrian in a good mood to look over the fence and muse, “What if....”

Suicide is almost never a “victimless crime.” Friends, relatives, and the community are all hurt by suicide. Most religions regard it as a sin, and it is criminal act in most American jurisdictions. Society does have an interest in preventing or at least obstructing the ease of suicides.

Should a suicide barrier be constructed, I hope a design will be chosen that does not mar the original beauty of the walkway, and which permits an unobstructed view of one the most spectacular urban landscapes anywhere. A desigh copetition might be a good way to approach the project.

For the moment, put me in the “undecided, but leaning” column on this issue. I look forward to rest of the Chronicle’s series. CRO

copyright 2005 Thomas Lifson



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