Monday, May 12, 2008

Caltrans on wrong track

Caltrans will hold two open forum public hearings, June 9 in Santa Barbara and June 10 in Solvang, to discuss the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge Suicide Barrier Project for State Route 154.

This would be the first time Caltrans has ever placed a ‘barrier’ on a State owned bridge, and already I’m a little worried about their approach; not to mention some other folks who question the overall effectiveness of this suicide prevention method.
Most Caltrans project announcements remind me of notices from the Department of Defense: complete gobbledygook written for technocrats, bureaucrats, or autocrats, but definitely not designed for public comprehension. I sometimes wonder if Assemblyman Pedro Nava, Chair of the Transportation Committee, was presented a special Sacramento ‘Wikipedia,’ dedicated to comprehending such linguistic baloney.
In this case, Caltrans refers to the suicide prevention bridge barrier project as a “safety improvement program.” They describe it this way: “The program includes projects at spot locations where accident history indicates a pattern susceptible to correction by a safety improvement, and system-wide improvement involving highway elements associated with accident frequency or severity. The Cold Springs Bridge, a state owned structure, has the highest concentration of fatalities in the District.”
Uh, hello boys in orange, we’re not avoiding traffic accidents or creating a ‘cone zone’ for speed reduction along this 1200 foot archway bridge, we’re supposed to be preventing folks in depressive crisis from leaping over the damn edge.
And if this is the way they build a case for expending between one and three million dollars, I am truly nervous about their ability to design and build this so-called “highway element,” because they can’t bring themselves to use the term ‘suicide’ until halfway into their politically correct or intentionally misleading description.
The Caltrans project, regardless of its uncertain costs (though I guarantee it will be more than projected, whatever that final number might be) has two distinctly opposing camps weighing in on its merits. The February 2008 Transportation District 5 notice cited support from The Glendon Association, The SB County Sheriff’s Department, The SB Council of Governments, The California Highway Patrol, Supervisor Brooks Firestone, and Assemblymember Pedro Nava.
Those who oppose the ‘barrier project’ include: SB County Taxpayers Association, SB Trust for Historic Preservation, Citizens Planning Association, Pearl Chase Society, SB County Action Network, Los Padres Chapter of the Sierra Club, Los Padres Forest Watch, Women’s Environmental Watch, San Marcos Trout Club, Santa Ynez Valley Alliance, and Friends of the Bridge.
This gathering ‘war of wills’ is focused on three bedrock issues: first, will the barrier actually prevent the incidence of death by jumping, or simply force those with intent to another location, second, will the barrier ruin the aesthetic qualities enjoyed by those traversing its expanse, and third, is this expenditure of funds (questionable though the cost may be) the best application for preventing an attempted suicide?
In November, an edhat blogger suggested the Caltrans proposal had “misplaced reliance on certain studies that have been misinterpreted or misrepresented.” The writer went on to warn of the danger to law-enforcement personnel called to intervene as someone (usually male, average age 35 worldwide) was in the process of jumping from the bridge. They also suggested a better use of the construction allocation would be training officers in safety intervention methods, establishing a community crisis center, installing call boxes, surveillance cameras and increasing ‘pass-by’ monitoring patrols. Unfortunately, there was no compelling evidence that any of these efforts were very effective in my research of studies from worldwide sources. Although locally quoted UCSB Associate Professor of Political Science Garrett Glasgow believes most of the statistical analyses favoring ‘barrier prevention’ are faulty by design, many other specialists confirm historically how preventing bridge jumps through some form of fencing or other barriers are most effective.
For example, in Augusta, Maine, Dr. Pelletier studied records between 1960 and 2005. He noted that with 14 suicides prior to the construction of a barrier fence in 1983, none had been accomplished since, with “no evidence that people sought alternative sites.” In Bern, Switzerland, they installed a net below the edges of the bridge, effectively stopping death by jumping, while there was nothing to indicate that those thwarted then ‘shifted to other bridges.”
Barriers were installed in Clifton, England in 1998, and the numbers dropped by more than half, again with “no evidence of an increase in jumps from other bridge locations.” Quebec, Canada had 54 suicides off their highest bridge between 1988 and 1993, leading them to propose a fence along the railing. That number has been significantly reduced.
Finally, in Christchurch, New Zealand, the barriers were actually removed in 1996 after being in place sixty years. According to the study, “the removal led to an immediate and substantial increase in the number and the rate of suicides.”
In the United States, the Golden Gate Bridge holds the unfortunate record for the most suicides in the world with over 1200 attempts since 1937. Something about the notoriety of this bridge may act as a magnet, with many of the victims having driven across the Oakland Bay Bridge, in order to reach their preferred destination site.
Second highest is Washington state’s 155 foot high Aurora Bridge, with 230 suicides. Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire used her supplemental budget to set aside $1.4 million for an eight foot fence along the half mile bridge, though the total cost set by the Washington State Department of Transportation is now projected to be between $4.3 and $7.5 million.
The studies leading up to the ‘barrier’ decision in Washington State indicated while there is no way to absolutely prevent a suicidal person from acting on their intent, the use of additional signage imploring those with such ideation to pick up a conveniently located ‘hot line’ phone and ask for help, did not effectively deter completion.
Currently, the Aurora Bridge plan is stuck in the conceptual design phase, while various competitors vie for the public and state DOT’s approval. One concept is to build art into the horizontal restraint wires; another utilizes a “minimalist approach with zap” by having electrically charged wires to dissuade those in crisis. There’s the laminate glass canopy proposal, but cleaning up after pigeons and traffic dirt are issues, while another artist proposes stainless bars of varying heights seen as “blades of grass” juxtaposed against the landscape.
I’m not trying be funny about creating something so serious, but this is Santa Barbara where the design of an adobe brick can take a committee four months to finalize. Besides, the Santa Maria Times reported almost a year ago that Caltrans announced a structural design team was developing suicide barrier design alternatives for the (Cold Spring Canyon) bridge.
Not being an engineer, I’m uncertain whether the possibility exists, but the method of using a net below the bridge edge, similar to Switzerland, seems worthy of examination and apparently has merit as a deterrent. Utilizing a net, the jumper is either dissuaded or caught, leaving the daily commuters an unimpeded view while crossing.
There is a public hearing on May 15th, held by the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, to “review a ‘new body of information’ which challenges the validity of the purported justification for the fencing barriers proposal.” Like so many things governmental, this one is all too likely to be distracted from the real purpose of saving lives and instead dissolve into a contest of wills about ‘real’ project costs, Highway Patrol or sheriff officer training, feasibility of design, Lifeline connections, ‘best practices’ for Caltrans as a transportation agency, or a myriad of tangential issues.
I would love to see a balance of safety for those in crisis with sensitivity to those who wish to enjoy the open feel and views from the incredible expanse of steel across the Cold Springs Canyon. I would love to think the ‘suicidal’ flow of drinking drivers that occurs each evening down that two lane death trap might be dissuaded by additional patrols and spot checks, and compare the number of deaths from such accidents to those others intent on self harm. There seems to be money and motivation for bridge barriers, but not for additional patrols. However, any single loss of life from an otherwise avoidable situation is still one loss too many.


In a traffic jam said...

I submit that the high rate of suicides is a direct result of orange cones and idiotic lane closures for nonsensicle, tax-dollar wasting Caltrans projects and that, maybe if we eliminate Caltrans and all the worthless individuals that stand behind their orange cones collecting paychecks for doing nothing but screwing up traffic to do gardening, the suicide rate will drop considerably therefore saving lives, tax dollars, and the fuel burned while a CHP car sits there idling all day to keep the citizens from running down anything that's orange.

Garrett Glasgow said...

I am writing to correct a misperception of my statements on suicide barriers reflected in Loretta Redd's column on May 13th.

My statements on the effectiveness of suicide barriers have been portrayed as contradicting previous research on suicide barriers. This is not true.

Previous research on this topic has been explicit on this point -- while suicide barriers do reduce the number of people who jump from bridges, it remains unknown if these barriers save lives. That is, previous research has been unable to rule out the possibility that suicide barriers simply shift suicides to another location. Other
researchers and I are in complete agreement on this point.

It is not previous research that is faulty, but the interpretation of this research by some parties involved in this debate.