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Opponents of Suicide Barriers on Bridge Float Alternative

A group comes out against suicide barriers on the Cold Spring Bridge.

In the latest salvo of an increasingly bitter battle, opponents of a plan to build a suicide barrier on the Cold Spring Bridge  on Highway 154 announced an alternative proposal Wednesday.

The newly formed "Friends of the Bridge" maintains that the $1 million plan by the California Department of Transportation to erect, by 2010, a metal barrier on the bridge from which 31 people have plunged to their deaths in 25 years is money misspent.

“This bridge is a classic beauty,” said the group’s spokesman, Marc McGinnes, a professor emeritus of environmental studies at UCSB. “When we think of it being caged, we go, ‘Wait a minute.’ The small number of people who jumped from this bridge cannot be deemed the reason for making all of us victims of their suicide."

Friends of the Bridge, which McGinnes said comprises some 55 members, suggest a host of less expensive options, such as installing call boxes and surveillance cameras nearby, as well as providing additional training for law enforcement officers.

Their alternative proposal, which they distributed to the local media Wednesday, is the latest move in what has become a war of words between them and the Glendon Association, a local non-profit mental health organization that swears by the barriers.

“Barriers are the cheap, technical quick fix,” McGinnes said. “They and callous, they don’t work and the word boondoggle really comes to mind.”

On Wednesday, Lisa Firestone, the Glendon Association’s director of research and education, said she believes their ideas on the matter are deeply flawed.

“The only proven method of stopping people from jumping off the bridge is putting up barriers,” she said.

This, she said, is because many people are ambivalent about committingsuicide. Such people are more prone to consider the most convenientmethods available – like jumping off bridges. 

Firestone noted that Caltrans has earmarked funding for the barrier because more people have died on the bridge than in any other spot in the five-county area that comprises Santa Barbara, San Benito, Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo.

She added that plans for call boxes in the area are already in place.

"But even then, if they do make a call, help is still 20 or 30 minutes away," she said.

Firestone said that in general, suicide rates go down whenever the means for committing the act are restricted. As an example, she cited the once-common English method made famous by the suicide of author Sylvia Plath: sticking one’s head in the oven and dying from the methane. When England decided to convert to a less lethal form of gas (strictly for financial reasons), suicide rates went down, she said.

Bridge jumpers, Firestone continued, tend to be younger than other people who commit suicide, and therefore are more ambivalent about the idea of dying.

“The more distance we put between a person and their plans for suicide the better,” she said.

The dustup over the barrier has been simmering for some time, but it boiled over in September, when another UCSB faculty member wrote a paper questioning the effectiveness of suicide barriers.

Garrett Glascow, an associate professor of political science, argued in his paper  that no study has ever proven that barriers do not simply divert people to other methods of suicide.

“The response of a lot of people is that if the barrier saves even one life, it’s worth it,” he said. “That’s not necessarily true. If it takes money away from a project that would have saved five people, that’s probably not a proper trade.”

His paper drew a sharp response from the Glendon Association, which last week issued a press release titled “There is no debate: Barriers save lives.”

In it, the Glendon Association cited organizations that have endorsed suicide barriers, such as the Journal of the American Medical Association, as well as area politicians who support a barrier at Cold Spring, such as Assemblyman Pedro Nava.

“When that many people die in one place, it is our responsibility to take action,” he said in the statement.

Of Glasgow, Glendon’s statement maintained that his “self-published paper has yet to withstand the scrutiny of peer review. Until this paper is accepted by a scientific publication, Glasgow’s conclusions cannot be considered valid.”

Meanwhile, Caltrans is still moving forward – albeit slowly – with its plan to erect the barrier.

“There has been a lot of loss of life out there,” said Caltrans spokesman Jim Shivers, who added that he values the input from Friends of the Bridge. “When we see that kind of loss of life on any state facility, whether it be a bridge or a freeway or an intersection, we are going to take action.”

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