SAN FRANCISCO — For all the publicity about the Golden Gate Bridge being an international suicide destination, it turns out most people who jump are locals. And they're mostly white men.
The first demographic profile of bridge suicides since the famous Art Deco span opened in 1937 dispels years of hype over the global scale of the bridge's fatal attraction.
Of the 203 people confirmed to have jumped off the bridge from July 1997 to Thursday, more than 85% were Bay Area residents and 92% were from Northern California, says Marin County Coroner Ken Holmes.
According to his data released this week, the average person was 41.7 years old, with the youngest being a 14-year-old girl and the oldest an 84-year-old man. Men outnumbered women almost 3 to 1. Although they came from all races, 83% were white.
The 220-foot plunge from the bridge deck into San Francisco Bay is popular because it is easy to reach and the only barrier is a 4-foot railing. An estimated 1,250 suicides have been confirmed since 1937, including 23 so far this year.
Holmes said he was asked to compile the data by the Bridge Rail Foundation, a group urging bridge officials to raise the 4-foot railing to deter jumping. The board that operates the bridge is studying alternatives, including raising the railing. A decision isn't expected before next year, says bridge spokeswoman Mary Currie.
"I truly believe that if we can raise the railing, it will prevent at least some, if not all, the suicides," Holmes says. About 70% of those who appear to be about to jump are stopped by bridge security or maintenance workers, Currie says.
Three out of four jumps are seen and reported, and the Coast Guard retrieves many bodies within 30 minutes, Holmes says.
He doesn't buy the argument that publicizing bridge suicides leads to copycat attempts. For years, local media reported every victim, and the grisly countdown reached a frenzy in 1995 as the 1,000th suicide approached. "I became very, very angry," Holmes says. The media agreed to stop the count.
"I thought maybe it would reduce the numbers even by a tiny little bit," he says. It didn't. Suicides continued to fluctuate "between 20 and 40 a year."
After whites, Asian had the biggest share of victims — 9.8%. More than half of all victims, 56%, had never married and 21% were divorced.
"People come to the Bay Area because they can get lost," Holmes says. "If they find that getting lost isn't the exact answer, they may choose to end their lives at the bridge."