In his original design for the Golden Gate Bridge, engineer Joseph Strauss included a structure to deter suicide. He specified a safety railing of five feet six inches, capped in a manner difficult for any climber to grasp. Strauss advertised the Bridge through the press as practically suicide-proof. Architect Irving Morrow changed that design, and specified a lower railing.
Within weeks of the 1937 opening, the Golden Gate Bridge witnessed its first suicide. In early 1939, with the Bridge open only 18 months, the suicide count reached 11 and the California Highway Patrol began to express its concern publicly.
The Bridge District's first "study" of the problem was in 1948. Engineers recommended a solution in 1953. By 1962, there was a suicide from the Bridge every other week. Though individual years vary, two confirmed deaths per month has been the average suicide rate from the Golden Gate Bridge since.
In 1973, media coverage exploded over the 500th suicide from the Bridge. The decade heralded an in-depth analysis of seventeen suicide barrier designs by the firm Anshen + Allen. Unfortunately, this extensive work did not rouse the Bridge District to take any remedial action.
By the mid-90s, as the suicide total approached 1,000, Bridge officials finally took action—they stopped counting. Under public pressure, the District also installed telephones with links to crisis counseling centers and instituted special training for Bridge staff and emergency service personnel. A new design for the railing was examined, and a prototype was installed in the Bridge parking lot.
In the years after the crisis lines were installed, district officials never reviewed the effectiveness of their actions, or even presented suicide statistics to their board. We know the deaths continued, because the Marin Coroner kept count. In 2005, the Coroner’s office took an additional step—reporting the bodies they receive, plus bodies recovered elsewhere in the Bay and witnessed jumps where no body was recovered. As a result, a more complete count of Bridge suicides is now available for 2005 through 2009. These figures show the average number of deaths at the Gate exceed 30 per year.
The reality is that suicide jumps from the Bridge now continue at about three per month. The confirmed number of suicides now well exceeds 1,500.
A comprehensive discussion of this history and the political background of Bridge district actions have been developed by Louise Dyble. For a copy of this extensive review, click here.
Credit: Special thanks to Jenni Olson, filmmaker and producer of The Joy of Life for much of the research on this page. For information on Jenni’s film Click Here