March 27, 2014 -- The biggest “suicide magnet” in the world may be San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Just this year, 46 people have jumped to their deaths from the iconic structure, and 1,600 have died after jumping since it opened in 1937, according to the Bridge Rail Foundation, whose only goal has been to stop the suicides.
Until now, the 1.7-mile suspension bridge has been the only major international suicide landmark without deterrents. The Eiffel Tower, Sydney Harbor Bridge and the Empire State Building all have barriers.
But that looks like it soon will change.
In late May, the directors of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District are expected to vote to use toll money, as well as state and federal funds, to create a $66 million stainless-steel net system -- a “suicide system deterrent project” -- that will hang 20 feet below the sidewalk.
“We are not shovel ready, but the funding plan we have worked on and off for the last couple of years has more momentum behind it,” district spokeswoman Mary Currie told ABCnews.com. “I never say the board is ready to pass it, but there is a very strong indication that the interest level is very high.”
Currie said the directors had spent $5 million on a “very extensive” engineering and environmental study from 2004 to 2010 to produce the current design that had “the least visual and aesthetic impact” of five proposals, “including doing nothing.”
A 2013 op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times by John Bateson, author of "The Final Leap: Suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge," noted that the Golden Gate Bridge “exerts a stronger pull than anywhere else.” Many jumpers think a bridge jump will mean a quick, certain death, but an estimated 5 percent survive and drown. Those who do get picked up by the Coast Guard usually have permanent injuries.
Parking lots at both sides of the bridge, as well as pedestrian and bicycle pathways, make it easy to access the bridge. And its railing is only four feet high.
“Anyone can climb over it, from a 5-year-old girl -- the bridge's youngest official suicide -- to people in their 80s,” read the Los Angeles Times report.
In 2008, city officials approved installing a net under the bridge to stem the jumpers, but funding was never approved for its construction.
But if the current design gets approval, the safety net project will be paid, in part, by bridge tolls, as well as state and federal funding. It may be 2015 before a contract is awarded, according to Currie, and the project will take three years to build.
A recent report in the New York Times said suicide deaths have now exceeded traffic fatalities at the bridge.
Critics have argued that the Golden Gate Bridge directors cared more about traffic deaths than suicides when a moveable median was added to the bridge this fall.
“That’s apples and oranges,” said Currie. “Advocates say we valued the lives of motorists rather than persons contemplating suicide, but that was not the case. How it works in the public sector is we moved forward with that because we had the funding, just as we will with the nets.”
Broadly speaking, 8.3 million Americans -- 3.7 percent of all adults -- have serious thoughts of suicide each year; 2.3 million make a plan and 1.1 million attempt suicide, resulting in an estimated 37,000 suicide deaths each year, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Some studies show that iconic bridges and other physical structures draw those with suicidal impulses, but if barriers are in place, many deaths can be prevented.
The second deadliest suicide bridge is the Aurora Bridge in Seattle, where, in 2013, 230 took their lives, according to the Seattle Friends, which organized to prevent the deaths. More than half of the victims landed not in the water, but on the pavement and busy intersection below.
Since 2011, safety barriers have been in place, thanks to a suicide-prevention organization. Now, state transportation officials, who spent $4.8 million on the project, say guardedly that it is working.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline promotes the use of bridge barriers as the "most effective" means of bridge suicide prevention. It also recognizes that signage or other public education media near bridges promoting awareness of hotlines can supplement such barriers.
The group's executive director, John Draper, said of the Golden Gate project, “I think it’s a long overdue achievement for suicide prevention and public safety.”
He said many bridge officials had turned to hotlines only because their “cheap cost.”
“One of the reasons that has kept this from going up was the cost -- but another reason was the aesthetics,” he said. “But think of the cost to human life. Can you imagine? The Golden Gate Bridge can now become a national and international monument for not only beauty, but compassion. When people look at the bridge, they are reminded suicide is preventable -- something we can do something about.”
When used alone at bridges, hotlines are “ineffective,” said Draper.
“There is no one tool for every situation,” he said. “But what is right for bridges and structures where people historically leapt to their death or [had] fallen by accident, is barriers. The evidence is overwhelming.”