Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bridge officials want suicide barrier: but at what cost?

Officials for the agency that manages San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge are planning to spend tens of millions of dollars to build a suicide barrier. The bridge has long been a magnet attracting those who wish to end their lives.

But a poll of San Franciscans found that about three quarters of them think there should be no barrier at all. Of course public opinion will be ignored. The most popular plan is to but a net made of steel cables to catch the jumpers. The cables will be coated with plastic but will still hurt like hell when someone hits it, hitting steel cable after falling 20 feet is not exactly pleasant.

The main proponents of the idea are mental health professionals, who at the very least, have a conflict of interest here. I presume that any jumper so snagged would then be forced into the mental health system where these professionals will be paid to “help” them.

The net, of course, will not be fool proof. An unknown number of people will still be able to climb out of the net and complete their journey.

The other problem they are grappling with is that the net may actually attract jumpers just not those who wish to die. Thrill-seekers can be tempted to leap into the net. To prevent this the authorities are planning to impose stiff fines on jumpers. I assume this will be across the board. Somehow I can’t see a heavy fine giving the suicidal another reason to live.

The cost for the netting is estimated to be $40 to $50 million. Typical with any government project one should at least double the original estimate since government officials always lie through their eye teeth when it comes to cost estimates --- much as they always overstate the benefits of any new project they propose.

The bridge, which is now 71-years-old, has been the location of approximately 1,300 known suicides. If, over the next 71 years, the net prevents the same number of suicides as have taken place since its erection, then the cost per suicide prevented, would be approximately $38,500. That is provided the cost is not higher than the original projections. If the costs are double what they project then figure about $77,000 per prevention.

According to news reports the jumpers will be extracted by a specially utilized truck with a “scooper” that will lower two workers down to the jumper. It is unclear whether the cost of the truck in included in the $50 million cost. And there is the question of how much money it will cost per call out. Both should be added to the costs. None of this includes the $2 million being spent just to study the project!

Of course, if the net actually encourages thrill-seekers to leap then the number of jumpers will increase and so will the costs of extraction. In other words there is no idea what the costs may be per life saved. Assuming the numbers jumping over the next 71 years are similar to the last, assuming that the net actually saves every single one of those jumpers from death, and assuming typical cost overruns and labor costs to scoop out the jumpers, the cost per suicide prevented could be around $100,000. And that is assuming that no thrill-seekers are attracted to jump because the net is there to save them.

In one recent year the Bay Area had a total of 622 suicides. Of those 23 were people who jumped off the bridge. That means the barrier will do nothing to prevent 96% of the suicides. Less than 4% of suicidal individuals in the Bay Area use the bridge to off themselves. And officials admit that some unknown number of them will still climb out of the net anyway. In addition it is safe to say that a barrier on the bridge, if successful, may only change the method of suicide. Someone wishing to end their life has many options to pick from. Removing one option still leaves all the rest. Then there is the question as to whether it is a proper function of government to prevent people from killing themselves but I won't delve into that here. I’m with the 75% of the public who think the officials should just scrap the project.

For the record, I did have one friend who jumped from the bridge. Yes, I was shocked he did it. But not surprised. He was an immensely unhappy individual plagued by fears about his life. I have little doubt that had the bridge option been closed to him he would have found another method to end it all.

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