Just over a year ago, officials installed “bird spikes” on the rails of the San Diego-Coronado Bridge and hoped they’d serve as a stop-gap measure to prevent suicides. But statistics suggest the spikes haven’t slowed the pace of the bridge’s death toll.
Fifteen people jumped from the bridge to their deaths in 2019, according to the county medical examiner’s office, almost all after the spikes were installed. This number is not unusual. Since 2012, the number of bridge suicides has ranged from 12 to 19 a year.
“I was hoping the spikes would make bridge suicides stop, or at least lower the number of deaths,” said former firefighter Wayne Strickland, a leader of efforts to prevent suicides from the bridge. “Fifteen deaths in 2019 tells us that the spikes are only keeping the traffic moving because people are jumping quickly instead of sitting on the edge – impossible because of the spikes – and thinking about it before they jump.
There are no plans for any immediate fixes to prevent suicides from the bridge. The state – which manages the bridge – isn’t expected to build a barrier for five to 10 years, said a Caltrans spokesman. In North America, only San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge seems to have a higher suicide death toll.
The spikes are the same type of “bird spikes” that are used under the eaves of Caltrans bridges to keep birds from roosting. On the Coronado bridge, they’re intended to be a “temporary deterrent” that give police more time to intervene when people are suicidal, said Caltrans spokesman Edward Cartagena.
“They make it more difficult for a person to sit, stand and climb over or onto the railing,” he said. “That leaves standing on the bridge deck – and not atop the railing – as an option, possibly providing additional time for intervention. First responders have stated that they are largely successful at deterring individuals from suicide when they are able to intervene.”
Annual Number of Suicides Remains Steady
There’s no way to know whether the spikes have deterred people contemplating jumping from the bridge – or how many. But it’s clear that they aren’t reducing the normal level of suicides.
Caltrans finished installing the sharp steel spikes on the railings of the bridge in March 2019, at a cost of $420,000. Fifteen people jumped to their deaths from the bridge in 2019, all but three of them after the spikes were installed, according to the county medical examiner’s office.
In recent years, the annual number of bridge suicides has ranged from 13 to 19; 2018’s total was 17. Information about bridge suicides this year isn’t available.
Around 400 people have jumped to their deaths from the Coronado bridge since it opened in 1969. From 2000-2010, the annual number of deaths ranged from three to 12.
For reasons that aren’t clear, bridge suicides became much more common as the Great Recession began to lift. In 2012, the bridge reached a grim milestone: a record high of 19 suicides.
‘Folding Wave Barrier’ Is Top Option for Now
Most of those who jump from the bridge die from the impact, according to the medical examiner’s office, but some survive the fall and go on to drown. “There’s nothing at all glamorous about jumping off a bridge,” Dr. Jim Dunford, medical director of the city of San Diego, told VOSD in 2008. “It’s not a swan song, diving into heaven. You really get a disfiguring, traumatic and dramatic death.”
For 2019, specific information is only available about 11 suicide victims who died during the first half of the year. Eight were men and three were women. All but four were white. Their ages ranged from 23 to 62.
Caltrans has finished a $285,000 study that determined that a suicide-prevention barrier is feasible for the bridge. The next step is a $5 million environmental impact review process that’s expected to last at least into 2022.
“If we receive regulatory approvals and have funding, we can proceed to design and construction,” Caltrans spokesman Cartagena said. “From feasibility study to construction completion, [the timeline] is expected to be between five and 10 years.”
It’s not clear how much the full Coronado bridge barrier project will cost or what it will look like. A year ago, Caltrans held a community meeting where officials pointed to a “folding wave barrier” as the best option and said it would cost between $20 million and $25 million, said Strickland, the suicide prevention advocate.
No one seems to know where the money might come from.
Barrier Efforts in San Diego and Beyond
In a 2013 analysis, researchers examined studies from around the world that explored what happened after officials tried to prevent bridge suicides through strategies like nets or metal barriers. The researchers found that suicides at the bridges fell by between 79 percent and 91 percent. While some suicidal people did seem to find other options, researchers found a decline in suicides by jumping in the communities.
In San Diego, officials in the 1950s dramatically reduced the suicide death toll from Balboa Park’s Cabrillo Bridge by installing fencing that’s still present today.
And suicides from UC San Diego’s 11-story Tioga Hall dormitory building ended after a barrier was installed at the insistence of a suicide victim’s mother. (I wrote a personal story for VOSD about that death, which took the life of a student who lived a few doors down from me at the UCSD dorm.)
Efforts to build suicide barriers at other high-profile locations are underway elsewhere in California and across the country.
The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the site of more than 1,400 suicides, is installing a $200 million-plus net to catch jumpers. But the project is now two years behind schedule and reportedly may not be finished until 2023.
In Florida, hundreds of people have jumped to their deaths from Tampa’s landmark Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which may be the deadliest bridge in the country other than the Golden Gate and Coronado bridges. According to the Associated Press, state officials in 2019 were finally looking at a barrier after long resisting the idea. “In addition,” the AP reported, officials are “about to install new technology that will detect pedestrians and stopped cars to more quickly alert authorities to a potential jumper.”
And in Pasadena, where more than 150 people have jumped to their deaths from the iconic Colorado Street Bridge over the past century, the city has approved building a suicide barrier. Work on the project was scheduled to begin this year.
According to the Pasadena Star-News, locals didn’t like barrier designs but felt they had no choice.
“I look at them and I hate them all,” a Pasadena historic preservation commissioner said during a meeting last fall, “and I hate the cause for it. That’s what I hate the most.”