It is funny (not really) that at the same time that we learn that a third Bay Bridge span is years off, that a wave of new concern about suicide jumpers has emerged.
Talk about breathing easier about life has always been a constant refrain among people traveling east across the 4.3-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge. As many people have said, the passage across the Chesapeake Bay evokes thoughts of lower blood pressure and recreational pleasures.
For some over the years, since the first span was completed in 1952, shoving ferries into obsolescence, and the second in 1973, the bridges represent a jumping off point. Literally. Those afflicted with depression or mental illness seek release from life by whirling themselves off the bridges into almost certain death in the inviting waters of the Bay.
At the same time we learn that a third span is several years in the future with a potential price tag of $10 billion (probably more) and fear the opportunities for more suicides, increased attention on preventing fatal suicide jumps is gaining momentum. This information is welcoming.
Netting to deter suicides and cushion the falls by desperate jumpers, thus precluding nearly certain death, will become part of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The same should be an adjunct to the two and possibly three Bay Bridge spans.
From 2014 to 2021, there have been 32 deaths and 33 attempts from Bay Bridge from jumpers. The number is not great. It is, however, striking. More than four people a year use a public structure to commit suicide. The impact on the victims’ families is inestimable. The disruption to the operation of the bridge is unmistakable.
It might be easy to say if that someone wants to commit suicide, so what. Suicide is a choice. That thinking would be flawed. Law enforcement and mental health professionals are deployed to talk a suicide jumper down from the precipice of death. Traffic can be stopped for hours during lengthy negotiation with the suicidal person.
Though people commit suicide daily by irresponsible consumption of alcohol and food, or drug abuse, a suicide attempt on a bridge is a public spectacle. It is human tragedy in the making. It requires an immediate response.
For years, the Maryland Transportation Authority, which manages the Bay Bridge, has deliberately avoided disclosure of jumps to address very real contagion; copycat actions are common in the wake of publicity. Mass shootings are an alarming example.
As our bridge planners design a third span, I suggest inclusion of a suicide deterrence net. Further, I recommend that state officials seriously consider installation of netting on the existing spans to prevent the loss of troubled lives and long, aggravating back-ups caused by negotiations with jumpers. At the risk of seeming facetious and uncaring, the mental health of motorists traveling across the Bay Bridge matters too.
Netting must happen now. Cameras, suicide prevention and emergency lights have some value, but not much. Within three weeks of the opening of the first span in 1952, a motorist committed suicide. An unfortunate sign of the times. Bridges are just too tempting for mentally ill people desperate to end their lives and thus abolish the terrible demons that have tormented their lives. Even writing these words strikes terror in me as I contemplate the thinking that drives people to commit suicide.
While increased traffic may demand a third span, along with concerns about the structural integrity of spans, I think the temptation for suicidal people to consider the Bay Bridge a jumping off platform compels prevention. The time has come.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. After 44 years in Easton, Howard and his wife, Liz, moved in November 2020 to Annapolis, where they live with Toby, a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel who has no regal bearing, just a mellow, enticing disposition.