In Our Opinion: Barriers to prevent bridge suicides worth considering

Two suicides at Deception Pass Bridge in July have reignited a community conversation about placing nets on the structure to prevent such tragedies.

Indeed, the state Department of Transportation, in cooperation with State Parks, should study the issue to determine how much nets would cost, if they are feasible and if they would compromise the historic status of the bridge or the scenic views.

Although people sometimes drive many miles to commit suicide at the bridge, experts believe that it’s ultimately an impulsive act. Which is why, they believe, barriers are effective.

Studies have shown that not only do the barriers prevent suicides at the bridges but that most of the people who are deterred do not commit suicide in other ways.

Researchers found that bridge barriers lower overall suicide numbers in a region and that people thwarted in attempts to jump from bridges usually do not try to commit suicide again.

Local activists had a “hotline” phone installed at the bridge to prevent suicides, but research has shown that they have limited effectiveness, according to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. It doesn’t help that the one at Deception Pass is hard to find and the state apparently won’t allow a sign to be placed highlighting it.

Several years ago, a Whidbey group placed rocks with messages of hope on the bridge to help suicidal people, but the state said they were dangerous to people on the walkway.

Some people may have assumed that nets wouldn’t be allowed on the bridge because it is historic — and the most commonly photographed landmark in the Puget Sound region — but a Department of Transportation official said that’s not the case. After all, many bridges across the nation with barriers are also historic, including the Golden Gate Bridge.

Getting accurate records on the number of people who jump to their death off Deception Pass Bridge is complicated by the fact that it spans two counties — with separate agencies responding — and that not everyone may be recovered from the swirling water.

Several years ago, a State Parks official estimated that three people commit suicide each year at the bridge. A county official estimated that about two people each year jump from the bridge. It is common for residents to alert deputies that someone has threatened to jump from the bridge.

Regardless of statistics, the bridge has been the sight of numerous tragedies for many decades. Not only are lives lost, but those who witness the suicides or retrieve bodies from the water are traumatized. In at least one case, the suicidal person has put deputies in danger.

If one of the Department of Transportation’s top priorities is safety, then barriers at the bridge are overdue.