UC Berkeley press release


Golden Gate Bridge suicide barriers can be both effective and esthetic, say student-initiated studies at UC Berkeley

by Robert Sanders

Berkeley -- Two of the principal arguments against a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge -- that it would ruin the view and the look of the bridge, and that potential suicides would find another way to kill themselves anyway -- are simply wrong, according to two student reports out of UC Berkeley.

One study by a trio of engineering undergraduates -- essentially a redesign and update of a 25-year-old proposal for a suicide barrier -- shows that a barrier can be both effective and attractive.

The second is a re-analysis of suicides on the bridge and of anti-suicide measures instituted in other cities in the U.S. and abroad, which shows that barriers and other measures can definitely reduce the number of suicides. That report is by Serena Volpp, a new Masters of Public Health graduate from UC Berkeley and fourth-year medical student at UC San Francisco.

The two reports dovetail with the goals of a newly formed group called the Golden Gate Suicide Barrier Coalition, which brings together suicide prevention experts from around the area as well as county coroners who have to deal with the bodies.

On the 60th anniversary today (5/27) of the Golden Gate Bridge, the coalition is urging the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District to commit to the idea of building a barrier that would stop the current toll of suicides. In 1995 alone, 45 people are known to have jumped off the bridge. More than 1,200 suicides have been documented since the bridge was completed, though many believe the toll could be twice that.

"There is research supporting that when people are stopped from committing suicide off the bridge, they don't commit suicide by other means," says Lawrence Wallack, professor of health education in the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley and a founding member of the Suicide Barrier Coalition. "Anything that makes it more difficult for people to commit suicide, that gives them some time to reconsider, is definitely a good idea."

Volpp's master's thesis considered policy issues surrounding a bridge suicide barrier, including a look at similar opposition to barriers on the Empire State Building and the Duke Ellington Bridge in Washington, DC.

"The Golden Gate Bridge is an icon in the air, and the public is very edgy about changing anything on it, even though they can't visualize what a barrier would look like," she says. "The main obstacles to a barrier are still political considerations and public opinion."

She also reviewed studies of the effect on suicides of restricting other lethal means, such as firearms or access to barbiturates -- efforts that have been tried in various countries or cities.

"In all situations, when you restrict lethal means then overall suicide rates in the area go down," she says. "You can never be certain you will prevent all potential suicides from the bridge, but you can be certain that people will not continue to die in large numbers. A barrier would prevent the impulsive suicides as well the very planned suicides, where someone travels here specifically to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge."

Many designs for barriers have been proposed over the years -- the architectural firm Anshen & Allen of San Francisco evaluated 18 such designs in the early 1970s -- but the bridge district ultimately dismissed all as either ineffective or unaesthetic.

At the suggestion of Wallack and former UC Berkeley School of Public Health assistant dean Thomas Novotny, three UC Berkeley undergraduates took on the task of designing a suicide barrier as part of a course in civil and environmental engineering.

"This is a real professional job," says Bob Bea, a professor of civil and environmental engineering who taught the course for which the team created the design, CE180: Design of Engineered Structures. "These students developed a design where the bridge looks better rather than worse. I was amazed."

The result is a challenge to engineers to improve on what these creative students have accomplished, Wallack says. The three students hope to present their report and design to the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District soon.

The students readily admit the limitations of their design, though.

"We're not saying this should be the barrier," says one of the team's members, senior Lori Dunn. "We took the top-rated proposal from the early 1970s and changed it so that it would be harder to climb, but we hope someone will take our design and modify it to make it more cost effective and more easily constructed.

"We think a safe and attractive suicide barrier can be built. With our report and model we hope to bring more attention to the need for a suicide barrier."

The bridge district recently commissioned a barrier design and a prototype is in the works to be used in wind-tunnel and scaling tests. It consists of a series of horizontal high-tension steel wires that grow slack at the top, making it hard to climb over.

"The Anshen & Allen report rejected a similar design 25 years ago," says Casey Bowden, a 1997 graduate. Team members Bowden, Dunn and senior Walter Aldrich, all of civil and environmental engineering, believe someone could too easily scale the barrier at the posts, which are set 100 feet apart.

The UC Berkeley students' design consists of vertical cables six inches apart -- too close to squeeze between -- with support posts out of reach behind the cables. The top support beam has a circular cross section too large for someone to grasp as a hand hold.

They based their design on the most highly rated proposal in the Anshen & Allen report, proposal 16, which was nevertheless turned down because several people were able to scale it. After talking with various district engineers and viewing the full-scale prototype of proposal 16, the students designed improvements that would make climbing much more difficult.

"Not only would it be more effective, but our design weighs less than the current rail and is affected less by the wind," Bowden says. "It shows that a suicide barrier is not so much an engineering problem as a political problem."

The point, Wallack emphasizes, is not whether the student design is the best design, but rather that the bridge district should get serious about a suicide barrier.

"The students' design seems like a real alternative, but what it really shows is that a design is possible," he says. "Let's put a suicide barrier on the agenda."

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