In contradiction to a number of local agencies, one UCSB professor created controversy this week when he challenged the validity of studies concerning suicide barriers on large bridges.
The opposition comes amid a countywide discussion regarding the construction of a suicide barrier on Cold Spring Arch Bridge. The project, which claims barriers reduce suicide rates, was proposed by the Cold Spring Canyon Arch Bridge Suicide Prevention Committee – a group backed by the California Department of Transportation, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, the California Highway Patrol and many others. However, Garrett Glasgow, a UCSB political science associate professor, recently released a report claiming the county lacks the evidence to prove barriers are successful deterrents.
“First, note that there is a distinction between preventing suicides and preventing suicides at a particular location,” Glasgow stated. “Numerous studies have shown that installing a suicide prevention barrier on a bridge deters suicides at that location … However, deterring suicides at a particular location is not proof that we have saved lives.”
In one example, Glasgow cited a study used by the committee as an argument in favor of suicide barriers. In the study, a suicide prevention barrier was installed on the Duke Ellington Bridge in Washington D.C., while another nearby bridge, the Taft Bridge, remained unprotected. After the barrier was installed, suicide rates dropped at Ellington, while suicide rates at Taft remained the same. Yet, Glasgow argued that this study does not necessarily prove that lives were saved.
“Are the data provided sufficient to substantiate the effectiveness or lack thereof of bridge barriers as a means to prevent suicide?” he stated. “The answer is no … because [the statistics] do not touch on the issue of whether persons who would have committed suicide by jumping from the Ellington Bridge went on to commit suicide by other means.”
Yet, Suicidologist and Glendon Association Research and Education Director Lisa Firestone said she has evaluated enough information to disprove Glasgow’s report.
“There is good evidence out there that means restriction [such as a preventive barrier] is a good method for reducing suicide,” Firestone said. “So much so that it is the fifth point in the national strategy for preventing suicide … The impulse to commit suicide is a moment in time. Suicide crisis is not constant. It is something that waxes and wanes. When you create a distance between someone wanting to kill themselves and the means to do that, there is a good chance the impulse will pass.”
In its own reports, the Suicide Prevention Committee claimed the Cold Spring Arch Bridge, located by Highway 154 near San Marcos Pass, has the highest suicide rate of any state highway spot within the five nearest counties.
Caltrans District Five Spokesman Jim Shivers said the bridge needs suicide prevention measures as soon as possible.
“We’re not looking at this as a debate,” Shivers said. “What we see is an unsafe condition. We see a loss of life. Thirty-one people have lost their lives in the last 25 years. When we see any loss of life on any highway, we work to fix that. Our job is to make [the bridge] safe for the public.”
Shivers said the county could finish the proposed barrier by 2010.
Meanwhile, Glasgow said the county should evaluate the issue further before spending any money.
“Whether our goal is highway safety or suicide prevention, we must question the decision to spend $605,000 on a project with no evidence of effectiveness at a location averaging one death per year,” Glasgow said. “My study doesn’t prove they don’t work, only that there is no evidence to prove they do.”
Cold Spring Arch Bridge was built in 1963. Since its construction, a total of 43 people have committed suicide at that location.