Tacoma Narrows Bridge should be known for scenery, not suicide

One lane of eastbound state Route 16 on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was closed after a woman threatened to jump on an August morning in 2015. Such scenes are not uncommon on the 11-year-old bridge.
One lane of eastbound state Route 16 on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was closed after a woman threatened to jump on an August morning in 2015. Such scenes are not uncommon on the 11-year-old bridge. News Tribune file photo

Just as the Golden Gate Bridge reigns over the San Francisco Bay area, the eastbound Tacoma Narrows Bridge stands tall on our skyline. Both rank among America’s five-longest suspension bridges. Both provide essential links for tollpaying peninsula commuters. And both offer breathtaking views for residents and tourists who cross the bridge on four wheels, two wheels or on foot.

Sadly, both landmarks also have gained notoriety as places where people go to end their lives.

At the Golden Gate Bridge, roughly 1,700 people are believed to have jumped to their deaths since it opened in 1937. Recent estimates put the average number of suicides at 35 per year.

Those grim statistics apparently aren’t tracked for the Narrows Bridge. But mental health and public safety officials know the 11-year-old span attracts suicidal individuals. Bridge users know all too well that when a traffic lane is closed and State Patrol vehicles are parked along the walkway, it often means someone’s having a life-or-death crisis.

Fortunately, there’s something else the bridges have in common: Suicide-prevention features are being added to both.

Golden Gate work crews, after decades of public debate and lots of red tape, are now installing a steel safety net 20 feet below the walkway railing.

In the South Sound, meanwhile, advocates are in the home stretch of a more modest project. Permanent signs on the Narrows Bridge will share a short message of hope and a number to call or text for help.

Pierce County is fabricating the signs. The state Department of Transportation will install them. The Gig Harbor-Key Peninsula Suicide Prevention Coalition is paying for them.

It’s encouraging to see governments and nonprofits cooperate in ways that maximize social concern at minimal cost to taxpayers.

Some critics complain such efforts detract from the aesthetic beauty of bridges. Others say they’re pointless gestures, a mere distraction for people who will find other means to end their lives.

The first complaint is grossly insensitive, while the second is inaccurate. Dr. Mel Blaustein, a psychiatrist at St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco, said he often treats would-be bridge jumpers. “A couple of days later, they say ‘What was I thinking?’ Once deterred, the impulse is over.”

Kevin Hines, a rare survivor of a Golden Gate Bridge suicide attempt, says he felt instant regret after leaping over the rail 18 years ago this month. Hines will speak to Gig Harbor area students on Nov. 5; a community forum is also planned.

An inspirational documentary called “The Ripple Effect” recounts Hines’ journey from disconsolate teenager to world-renowned mental health champion. The film was screened in Gig Harbor on Sept. 10 (World Suicide Prevention Day); beforehand, the local coalition announced it expects the Narrows Bridge signs will be in place this fall.

It’s not the first time Washington officials have answered requests for action on bridges where suicides are common. A fence was completed on Seattle’s infamous Aurora Bridge in 2011. A help sign and 911 callboxes were installed on the Fred G. Redmon Bridge on Interstate 82 near Yakima in 2015.

Posting signs on the Narrows Bridge is a nominal investment by comparison. Members of the Suicide Coalition say they’ll lobby next for a barrier or safety net. They’d have a stronger case if bridge suicides and police responses were tracked. The Pierce County medical examiner or the State Patrol would do well to keep those statistics.

The signs might very well be a starting point. If nothing else, they’re a good step forward to convince desperately lost and hurting people to take a brave step back.