A local citizen-based group, Friends of the Bridge, along with former UCSB environmental studies professor Marc McGinnes, have submitted an alternative to the California Dept. of Transportation’s proposal to install steel suicide prevention barriers along Highway 154’s Cold Spring Arch Bridge – the site of just over 30 suicides in the last 25 years.
The proposal follows a report put out by UCSB political science professor Garrett Glasgow last month that stated that no evidence exists that barriers on large bridges prevent more suicides. The new proposal calls for the installation of cameras and Lifeline call boxes on the bridge, a solution supporters claim will better prevent suicide as well as costing a fraction of the $1 million Caltrans has allocated for the steel barriers. The project would simultaneously prevent any drastic alterations to the aesthetics or structural integrity of the historical bridge, which stretches high over a rocky ravine in the Santa Ynez Valley. In addition, the proposal recommends increased training for local law enforcement to prevent any risk of harm to officers responding to a possible suicide.
Caltrans is required by law to incorporate the new proposal into its project review and evaluation process, which will continue into the middle of next year. 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 Caltrans, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Dept., the California Highway Patrol, the Glendon Association and others.
However, McGinnes said that Caltrans’ failure to invite any environmental or historical preservation organizations to serve on the committee compromised the project from the very beginning.
“This whole thing was caused by their failure to include the environmental and historical preservation groups from the get go,” McGinnes said. “I can understand why they didn’t. They were afraid that we were not going to cooperate. But you simply cannot do that. Caltrans is not a reckless agency, but they made a mistake here. We know what we’re doing. We’re trying to help Caltrans, not fight them. But there’s no need to make the bridge the victim.”
According to McGinnes, the new proposal closely resembles the suicide prevention plan of the New York State Bridge Authority. The NYSBA, after extensive cooperation with mental health agencies, recently drafted and enacted a plan that uses cameras, suicide prevention call boxes and increased training of law enforcement – all of which are points in the recent proposal for the Cold Spring Arch Bridge.
The NYSBA rejected the idea of building steel barriers, instead opting to “construct a ‘human barrier’ that will outperform any physical barrier and save more lives.” That report states that “preventing suicides on [the] bridges will most likely occur if we recognize the situation for what it is: a mental health problem that won’t be solved by a technical ‘quick fix’ in the form of a ‘curtain of steel.'”
The NYSBA is responsible for five bridges in the Hudson River Valley, a location that has the highest suicide rate by jumping anywhere in the country, except California.
The current controversy concerning the future of the bridge stems from Glasgow’s report that claimed no evidence suggests that barriers save lives, which Caltrans also included in its report.
However, the Glendon Association, a local mental health organization that was key player in Caltrans’ original proposal, has claimed the opposite. In a previous interview with suicidologist and Glendon Association Research and Education Director Lisa Firestone, she said that those who commit suicide do so often on an impulse, and that a barrier will allow that impulse to pass. This type of suicide prevention is known as “means restriction.”
According to McGinnes and Glasgow, means restriction has not proven successful. McGinnes said means restriction at one location would simply cause the subject to commit suicide at another.
“What Glendon has claimed is that barriers on bridges will prevent suicide,” McGinnes said. “Glasgow has looked at all the information that Glendon looked at and he determined that their assumption simply wasn’t true. There has been no decrease in the suicide rate at locations where barriers on bridges have been installed. Glendon and Caltrans are misrepresenting this information. It can’t be said that barriers save lives. This isn’t the Golden Gate we’re talking about. That’s where people go to act out. With our humble bridge, those wanting to die go there to kill themselves and will do so one way or another.”
Caltrans spokesman Jim Shivers said the agency is simply treating Cold Spring Bridge like any other situation.
“Simply put, Caltrans owns and maintains that bridge and when we notice a pattern of fatalities, that is something that catches our attention and that we don’t take lightly,” Shivers said. “It is no secret that we are looking at some steel barriers. That does not mean to say that we will not consider all possibilities. We want that extra layer of public input. We are open to all ideas.”
The $1 million that Caltrans has allocated for the project comes from funds budgeted for Collision Reduction-Safety Improvements. Friends of the Bridge has stated that its plan would cost significantly less, freeing those funds for their original budgeted purpose.