If you want to die, the odds are in your favor if you’ve chosen the Coronado Bridge as your suicide site. And since the steel-and-concrete span opened in 1969, over 250 people have made the aerie, officially known as the Coronado-San Diego Bay Bridge, their jump-off point for eternity According to statistics compiled by the San Diego Harbor Police and the San Diego County Medical Examiner, around a dozen would-be suicides have resulted in survival; that’s a fatality rate of 95%. And as for the survivors? It’s a life typically consisting of some amalgam of paralysis, disfigurement, and pain.
Although the California Highway Patrol has jurisdiction on the bridge as part of State Route 75, compiling suicide statistics isn’t a high priority. According to CHP spokesman Ray Payton, “Suicides aren’t tracked separately; there’s no dedicated data base, so they just come in as regular incident reports.”
For a quantitative look at the various and sundry methodologies folks have employed to do themselves in, the San Diego County Medical Examiner sets forth statistics in its annual report, the latest iteration of which includes 2013. Accessible to the public online, it’s replete with graphs, tables and charts. In a section labeled “SUICIDES,” one can find, in descending order of frequency, the most popular ways for getting away from it all: firearms; overdose/poisoning; hanging/asphyxia; jumping and “other.” In 2013, there were 441 recorded suicides in the county, 40 accomplished by jumping.
Beyond the numbers, there are the people whose last moments, sometimes hours, are spent on this picturesque span overlooking the Bay.
On May 30, 2012, 20-year-old Bobby Mansueto of Coronado Cays took his place in the grim club. According to blogger Maggie Hannegan of eCoronado.com, Mansueto, a 2011 graduate of Coronado High School, was just one of a number of local teens who’d committed suicide. Although not all had chosen the bridge as the means to die, Hannegan upbraided Coronado politicos for what she regarded as their failure to address the issue: “…it seems to be swept under the town’s rug because it doesn’t jibe with the picture of perfection our civic leaders want painted of Coronado. There is something terrible going on in paradise.”
Would barriers or nets reduce the number of fatalities, and if so, is there reason to believe that the thwarted suicidal wouldn’t find another method? What about signs and phones? Kevin Caruso, opining under the banner of the nonprofit group Suicide.org, wrote in 2004, “There are no walkways on the bridge — pedestrians are not allowed. But that does not stop people from jumping. There are signs for people who are suicidal telling them how to get help. But the signs do not stop people from jumping. I have talked to many people who have jumped from bridges and survived, and I must tell you that their experiences are eerily similar. Almost without exception — immediately after they jumped, they wanted to survive. Let me repeat that: immediately after they jumped, they wanted to survive.”
Bridge-related or not, to build anything on a California highway, you’ve got to go through the California Department of Transportation, better known as Caltrans. And before building, the State of California says you have to conduct a study.
Cathryne Bruce-Johnson, local spokesperson for Caltrans, says that her agency has no records of studies (proposed or undertaken) of barriers or nets on the Coronado Bridge. When I pressed, “Why no studies?” she replied, “I don’t know. We checked with our maintenance division, and they said, ‘We have no records.’”
I asked, “Is it safe to say then, that no one has contacted Caltrans about nets or barriers?”
“I would not say that at all,” said Bruce-Johnson. “We just don’t have any records.”
Over at Coronado city hall, folks are pretty taciturn as well. Spokesperson Janine Zuniga stated, “Assistant city manager Tom Ritter [will] only say that no formal request has come to the City’s attention regarding the consideration of any type of barriers on the San Diego–Coronado Bridge. Of course, any changes to the structure of the bridge would have to be approved by the state Department of Transportation, who manages and maintains the bridge.”
A request brought under the California Public Records Act did, however, turn up Caltrans studies of barriers on the Golden Gate Bridge and on the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge east of Santa Barbara, where a tall, inward-curving fence was erected in 2012 following a prolix controversy.
Some researchers, such as Garrett Glasgow, a political science professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, have argued that barriers at a given bridge don’t reduce the death rate from suicides but do cause suicidal individuals to choose different bridges or different methods. (Glasgow’s contentions had been cited by a group, Friends of the Bridge, which attempted to block the installation of suicide barriers by Caltrans on the Cold Spring Canyon bridge.)
Efficacious or not, barriers (and nets) are routinely decried by online commenters who carp that, if such measures are installed, the bridges’ beauty will be vitiated, the view spoiled.
I queried Bruce-Johnson. “Does Caltrans believe that suicide attempts on the Coronado Bridge are an important issue? “I don’t know,” she replied. I don’t have the information to answer off-the-cuff.”
Following up by email, I asked, “Why did Caltrans perform studies regarding suicide prevention measures at Cold Spring Canyon Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge — but not at the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge?”
Bruce-Johnson maintains that the agency’s failure to even contemplate barriers on the Coronado Bridge reflects a widespread lack of interest rather than bureaucratic intransigence. “Caltrans does not have specific data related to suicides that would warrant such a study, nor has one been called for by any level of government with oversight of the California highway system. There is no data to suggest that the bridge poses a risk of suicide greater than other transportation structures around the state.”
Attempting to differentiate San Diego’s death span from Golden Gate and Cold Spring, Bruce-Johnson proffers, “San Diego–Coronado Bay Bridge is not a pedestrian bridge; pedestrians are prohibited. Both of the other bridges accommodate pedestrians and have a well-documented history of suicidal actions. The Golden Gate Bridge in particular is associated with suicide in the general public consciousness, and it is estimated some 1,500 people have committed suicide from that landmark span since its construction in the 1930s.” (The Cold Spring Bridge was the site of 54 suicides from its construction in 1964 to the erection of the barrier in 2012, an average of just over one per year. The Coronado Bridge’s annual average is approximately 5.5.)
Bruce-Johnson admits that, when it comes to Caltrans operations, bodies cascading into the bay are of scant concern — unless the flow of traffic is impeded. “We do not have a specific program addressing suicides on bridges; Caltrans does not track suicides unless they generate a traffic collision.”
Some locals claim that Caltrans has actively blocked efforts to construct anti-suicide measures on the bridge. In May 2007, a blogger posting as “Coronado Cookie” claimed, “Back in the 1980s when the suicide toll was the highest, most everyone backed a plan for a barrier on the Coronado Bridge. Everyone that is but Caltrans.”
In any event, the agency does its best to avoid the appearance of callousness. “Caltrans is in the process of adding four signs on the bridge. The new signs will be installed by summer. It is hoped that the signs will prompt those considering suicide to seek counseling. Caltrans considers any suicide anywhere a tragic loss of life. We encourage anyone with thoughts of suicide to seek immediate counseling.”