Bridge over Troubled Souls

April 18, 1995

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge had been opened only four months when, in September of 1952, a Baltimore engineer became the first to commit suicide there by jumping off the towering span.

Although no exact figures are available, more than 75 people have followed his example in the last four decades -- including three men in the past two months. The recent rash of suicides has prompted the Maryland Transportation Authority, which oversees the bridge's operations, to consider whether anything can be done to prevent people from jumping to their deaths.

Unfortunately, word from officials in charge of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco isn't encouraging. The Golden Gate probably holds some kind of inglorious record: More than 1,000 people have committed suicide by jumping off the span. Still, California authorities have found no effective way to stop them.

They experimented with a number of deterrents, but found that barriers either added too much weight to the bridge, were unable to withstand the winds or were aesthetically unattractive. The bridge does have telephones posted along the way so that people can call a suicide hotline for help. Not many have taken advantage of the service, however. The best the administrators of the Golden Gate have been able to do is keep an eye out for people who look likely to jump and stop them before they do.

But the toll workers and police who man the William Preston Lane, Jr. Memorial Bridge between Annapolis and Kent Island often have no warning. They simply find a car abandoned along the span. We are glad that Maryland transportation officials are concerned about the recent tragedies and are looking for a way to prevent them. The jumpers not only take their own lives, they endanger others when they abandon their vehicles in traffic. Perhaps a fence or net would at least discourage their attempts.

Of course, anyone determined to take his life will find a way. Consider the New Jersey man who in 1983 was grabbed by guards at the Empire State Building while attempting to scale a 12-foot spiked fence surrounding the observation deck there. He returned to the building days later, made it over the fence before anyone could stop him and plunged 86 stories to his death.

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