[UPDATED] GG Bridge Suicide Net: Nanny State or Smart Intervention? (Or Both?)

It seems as though officials have been arguing forever about whether to erect an anti-suicide net along the Golden Gate Bridge. On Friday, the bridge directors voted 14-1 in favor of creating such a net:

…the stainless-steel net system, which would be placed 20 feet below the deck, and would collapse around anyone who jumped into it, making it difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to leap to their death…

This has been a fairly divisive issue in San Francisco. Anti-netters argue that that the net will just cause people to kill themselves elsewhere (perhaps by jumping from a building in a business district), that the net will uglify the bridge, and that it will be expensive. They’re probably right on the last two arguments.

Pro-netters probably have the better public health argument. Among them are people who jumped from the bridge during a bout of depression and lived to regret it. The New Yorker ran an awesome story about the history of Golden Gate Bridge jumpers several years ago, which included anecdotes about those who jumped and survived:

Survivors often regret their decision in midair, if not before. Ken Baldwin and Kevin Hines both say they hurdled over the railing, afraid that if they stood on the chord they might lose their courage. Baldwin was twenty-eight and severely depressed on the August day in 1985 when he told his wife not to expect him home till late. “I wanted to disappear,” he said. “So the Golden Gate was the spot. I’d heard that the water just sweeps you under.” On the bridge, Baldwin counted to ten and stayed frozen. He counted to ten again, then vaulted over. “I still see my hands coming off the railing,” he said. As he crossed the chord in flight, Baldwin recalls, “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable–except for having just jumped.”

It still will be years before this net is complete. It will be interesting to see, if this intervention is effective, who the last to jump will be. The Golden Gate has inspired some very weird culture, and I’m willing to bet that there will be a group of people attempting to jump in the last days that it is possible.


I just went for a run which takes me to a view of the GG Bridge. The warships are in the Bay this weekend for Fleet Week, which is exciting.

The Chemist, in comments below, remarks about how callous we are as a society to know about this suicide problem for so long, and to do nothing about it.

But I’d argue doing nothing about it is very San Francisco, and as a non-native, I don’t share this feeling, but there is a feeling here that if people decide to off themselves, it’s their business. There’s a documentary about GGB suicides called The Bridge where they interview friends of people who jumped, and I was struck by how people just kind of accepted others’ decisions to die. It was strange for me, but there is a spirit of individualism here that just does not know boundaries…

Just check out this excerpt from the New Yorker story linked to above. There is a different mentality here, to say the least:

The [suicide] coverage intensified in 1973, when the Chronicle and the Examiner initiated countdowns to the five-hundredth recorded jumper. Bridge officials turned back fourteen aspirants to the title, including one man who had “500” chalked on a cardboard sign pinned to his T-shirt. The eventual “winner,” who eluded both bridge personnel and local-television crews, was a commune-dweller tripping on LSD.

In 1995, as No. 1,000 approached, the frenzy was even greater. A local disk jockey went so far as to promise a case of Snapple to the family of the victim. That June, trying to stop the countdown fever, the California Highway Patrol halted its official count at 997. In early July, Eric Atkinson, age twenty-five, became the unofficial thousandth; he was seen jumping, but his body was never found.

Ken Holmes, the Marin County coroner, told me, “When the number got to around eight hundred and fifty, we went to the local papers and said, ‘You’ve got to stop reporting numbers.’ ” Within the last decade, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Association of Suicidology have also issued guidelines urging the media to downplay the suicides. The Bay Area media now usually report bridge jumps only if they involve a celebrity or tie up traffic. “We weaned them,” Holmes said. But, he added, “the lack of publicity hasn’t reduced the number of suicides at all.”