A view of the Coronado Bridge from the back of a Harbor Police boat. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

After hundreds of deaths, decades of pleas and months of research, the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge may finally get a suicide barrier, although it’s only expected to be a stop-gap measure. The plan, now in the works, is to install “bird spikes” on the sides of the bridge to deter people from jumping off.

Caltrans wants to put this interim project into effect soon because a longer-term suicide-prevention strategy is expected to take years to develop, said spokesman Edward Cartagena. “We’re looking for something to do in between,” he said.

About 400 people have jumped to their deaths from the bridge since it opened in 1969. The annual number of suicides from the bridge began spiking in 2012 and have reached double digits every year since then. The death toll in 2017 of 18 lives lost in 2017 was the second-highest in the bridge’s history. (Suicide numbers and rates countywide have also spiked over the last several years.)

Only San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is deadlier among bridges in North America with reputations as suicide magnets. A $211 million net project is underway there, with a scheduled completion date of 2021.

Earlier this year, Caltrans released a report that analyzed various suicide barrier options at the Coronado bridge. Most — including a transparent panel barrier and a curved wire mesh barrier — could cost tens of millions of dollars, and a net was estimated at a price tag of $240 million.

The cheapest plan, as proposed by a Coronado resident, was the installation of sharp steel spikes in “thistles” that would protrude from the ledges and puncture anyone who tries to climb over them. The plan was estimated to cost as little as $5 million.

The bird spike plan appears to be similar to the thistle plan, although the cost is unknown. In a May 22 letter to a suicide prevention advocate, Timothy Gubbins, the interim director of the Caltrans district that serves San Diego, said the agency is investigating whether birds spikes “could be installed with a minimal level of environmental review and permit approval.”

Cartagena, the Caltrans spokesman, said bird spikes are already used under the eaves on some Caltrans bridges to keep birds out. In terms of installing them on the Coronado bridge, he said, the agency still needs to figure out issues like whether the spikes will be metal or plastic and how they’ll be replaced if they’re damaged.

Caltrans engineers believe it would take much less time for a bird-spike plan to get approved by various agencies than more elaborate strategies, Cartagena said.

It’s unclear, he said, whether the bird spikes would remain after a permanent suicide-deterrent is put into place.

While they’re not definitive, some studies have suggested that people who try to kill themselves at iconic bridges don’t tend to simply go elsewhere if a deterrent gets in the way. In many cases, researchers believe, they instead choose not to commit suicide.

Elsewhere, new barriers at suicide-magnet bridges across North America successfully reduced deaths from jumping. In Toronto, where the suicide toll from one bridge neared 400 in the 1990s, there’s been just one suicide in the years since a see-through “Luminous Veil” barrier was installed, according to researchers.

Trends in suicide are difficult to analyze since they can be affected by many factors. Still, a researcher in Canada believes that the installation of the barrier at the suicide-magnet bridge in Toronto actually prevented suicides in the city overall. And, as The (Toronto) Star reported last year, “at Edmonton’s High Level Bridge … city statistics indicate the number of both suicides and general mental health calls was cut in half a year after barriers were installed in 2015.”

Suicide prevention advocates have for years been imploring Caltrans to do more to deter deaths at the bridge. In 2008, a former head of suicide prevention for the county told me: “Their approach was, ‘One, we don’t want to spend any money. Two, we don’t want to screw up the prettiness of the bridge. Three, we don’t want to be sued and we don’t want to screw up our maintenance. We just want the suicides to stop or at least slow down.”

Local officials have been busy planning a $10 million lighting project to celebrate the bridge’s 50th anniversary next year.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga

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