No. 3209: NET OF LIFE

by Roger Kaza

Click here for audio of Episode 3209

Today, a net of life. The University of Houston presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

A history of technology might well be viewed as a history of protection. Stone tools to hunt and butcher, protecting us from starvation. Animal skins and woven textiles to protect us from the cold. Weapons of war to protect us from our fellow humans. But what about when the threat to survival comes wholly from within? In the United States, suicide now claims 47,000 lives per year. That's more than twice as many as from homicide. It poses the question: can technology protect us from ourselves?

The answer seems to be a qualified yes. Mental health professionals call it "limiting access to lethal means." A case in point is the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Since opening in 1937, the bridge has been the site of over 1700 suicides, by far the highest in the country. There are 30 or 40 a year, or shockingly, about one about every ten days. It didn't have to be this way. The original design of the Golden Gate included a high fence next to the pedestrian walkway. But in the end, for reasons unknown, it was lowered to a four-foot railing that virtually anyone can climb over. "Why do they make it so easy?" read one poignant suicide note.


Golden Gate Bridge   Photo Credit: Rich Niewiroski Jr.

Solutions to this problem have been proposed since the 1950s: a higher railing, or a net below. A net was used during construction of the bridge, and saved at least 19 workers who fell into it. But critics of these expensive barrier ideas pose the obvious question: isn't someone who is determined to take their own life simply going to do it some other way? Surprisingly, research suggests the answer is no. Each year scores of would-be jumpers are talked off the ledge. Of these, only a small percentage eventually go on to take their own lives. And of the 30 or so jumpers who have miraculously survived the horrific plunge, only three later perished at their own hands. For many of the survivors, it was, paradoxically, a transformative, life-affirming experience. Ken Baldwin felt instant regret the moment his hands left the railing. All of my problems are fixable, he suddenly realized, except for the one he had just created. Ken was lucky. He went on to become a successful teacher ...and advocate for a bridge barrier.

And there are other examples of technology inadvertently protecting us from ourselves. In the UK, ovens were once fired with coal-dust gas, high in carbon monoxide. "Home gas chambers" they were ghoulishly called, and often used as such. But when stoves changed to much safer natural gas, England's overall suicide rate plummeted 30%. Suicide is often an impulsive act, and responds powerfully to "limiting access to lethal means."

So if technology can protect us from ourselves, will it, in the case of the Golden Gate? In 2018 the city of San Francisco began construction of a steel net twenty feet below the bridge. It won't be 100% foolproof--nothing is--but will almost certainly discourage, and save, many of those drawn to this iconic span of grandeur and sorrow.

I'm Roger Kaza, from the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

Although a misconception persists that jumping off a bridge is a quick and painless death, the reality is far different. Most of the damage is internal, caused by drastic deceleration from extreme velocity. And while the Golden Gate bridge is a famous destination for suicides, almost half of such deaths in the U.S. are caused by firearms. Gun safes, gun locks, gun safety training and mental health background checks are all considered helpful steps towards "limiting access to lethal means."

Suicide hotline: 1-800-273-TALK and Crisis Text Line 741-741, text the word Hello for 24/7 support. In other areas of technological protection, Google, Instagram, and Facebook are using word choice algorithms to direct users to suicide prevention services.

An article covering recent work on the bridge net: Click here.

More about the history of suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge: Click here.

The Final Leap: Suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge by John Bateson

Thanks to Stephanie Coggin, VP, Communications & Marketing, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention for her help with this episode.

This episode was first aired on June 18, 2019