Student Project Could Save Lives on Gate Bridge

Engineering Undergraduates Redesign,
Update a Proposal for a Suicide Barrier

by Robert Sanders

On the 60th anniversary of the Golden Gate bridge in May, two reports by Berkeley students showed that two of the principal arguments against a suicide barrier on the span-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 wrong.

The students issued their reports May 27 as members of the new Golden Gate Suicide Barrier Coalition called for a firm commitment to build a barrier soon.

Just days before, the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District had finally said for the first time it would support the building of a barrier.

One of the studies was completed by a trio of engineering undergraduates. They redesigned and updated a 25-year-old proposal for a barrier that shows it can be both effective and attractive.

The second report is a re-analysis of suicides on the bridge and of anti-suicide measures instituted in other cities in the United States 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 Berkeley and fourth-year medical student at UCSF.

In the last 60 years more than 1,000 suicides have occurred from the bridge, the highest number of suicides at any single place in the world. In 1995 alone, 45 people are known to have jumped off the bridge.

"There is research supporting that when people are stopped from committing suicide off the bridge, they don't commit suicide by other means," said Berkeley Professor of Public Health Lawrence Wallack, a founding member of the new 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. "The Golden Gate Bridge is an icon, and the public is very edgy about changing anything on it, even though people often can't visualize what a barrier would realistically look like," 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 as the very planned suicides, where someone travels here specifically to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge," she said.

Many designs for barriers have been proposed over the years but all had been dismissed as either ineffective or unaesthetic.

At the suggestion of Wallack and former School of Public Health assistant dean Thomas Novotny, three 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."

The 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.



Copyright 1997, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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