Bridge barriers: a seemingly simplistic approach

On August 18, 2014, City Council pushed forward on the installation of barriers for the High Level Bridge. Aesthetics and impact on usability were major considerations. Luckily, these are not mutually exclusive, and the barrier options we put forward aimed to strike a balance between security and appealing design.

With a 3-million dollar cap, we’ve been asked to refine the second option we presented – a rendering based on the Clifton Suspension Bridge barrier in Bristol, England.

As the work on the bridge continues to move forward, so does the conversation on the efficacy of bridge barriers in addition to the debate on whether funds would be better spent elsewhere.

I’m sympathetic to those who question the usefulness of bridge barriers. Initially, I thought this was a simplistic approach – a bandage at best.

Drawing on my experience and understanding of the issue at the time, our efforts seemed better spent on public education and on-site supports (like emergency phones and impactful signage).

I imagined that this report could be a catalyst for a broader approach to suicide prevention – a Trojan horse of sorts.

The direction provided in the Council Inquiry, however, was rather prescriptive. We were to bring back options related to barriers, emergency phones and proactive prevention strategies. We were asked to ground the options presented in research and diverse expert opinion. This grounding provided to be fundamentally important.

high level blog post pic

Much to my surprise, as we reviewed the research, and what was working in other municipalities, the efficacy of barriers as a means of preventing suicides from bridges became more conclusive.

From Bristol to Botswana, the conclusions of diverse subject matter experts support barriers as an effective option.

Here are some of the most notable examples:

In Sydney, Australia the number of suicides from the West Gate Bridge has been reduced by eighty-five per cent following the installation of barriers in 2009.

When a partial barrier on the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, England was erected, the overall number of suicides from the bridge was cut in half over a five-year period.

On the flip-side, when safety barriers were removed from the Grafton Bridge in Auckland, New Zealand there was a five-hundred per cent increase in suicides. Subsequently, when the barriers were reinstalled, there were no further suicides.

In Toronto, there were 480 suicides from the Bloor Street Viaduct by 2003. Following Council’s move to install the Luminous Veil barrier, there have been no further suicides from this bridge.

There’s a catch with this one – although there was a decrease in site-specific suicides, there was no overall decrease in Toronto proper. This leads one to believe that the barriers simply displaced the issue.

This could be, but where Toronto differs from Edmonton (and some of the examples above) is that there is more than one hotspot bridge location for suicide.

As for phones and signs, the general consensus is that prevention measures help rather than harm. An argument can be made for a complementary approach when phone, signs and barriers are rolled out in unison. That said, the research isn’t as positively weighted as it is for barriers.

As an aside, there is emerging perspective concerning the unintended consequences of signage drawing attention to a site, bolstering the iconic status as a place for suicide.

The research suggests that people who attempt suicide from elevated structures, like the bridge, exhibit different profiles or characteristics than those who attempt other methods. For more impulsive individuals, iconic structures can act as magnets. Conversely, by providing pause, barriers can lend themselves to both site-specific and overall suicide prevention.

Again, this runs counter to what we think we know about suicide. To censor ourselves seems counterintuitive – a throwback to less enlightened times.

In terms of the debate on whether funds would be better spent elsewhere – it’s important to remember that this Council Inquiry related specifically to preventing the tragedy caused by suicides on the bridge. Framing this as a conflict of interests between bridge barriers vs. (insert your solution here) is not entirely accurate, and has proved to be a divisive point.

I think one would be hard pressed to find someone who believes that a bridge barrier will provide necessary mental health support or reduce isolation. That was never the intent.

The intent is that barriers provide pause, a moment for reconsideration.

Reducing overall suicide rates in our city is a much larger challenge beyond the scope of this report. Ultimately there is only so much we can do to prevent suicide, but there are certain measures we can take.

Time will tell, but based on the research, and findings worldwide, bridge barriers have proved themselves as a sound step forward.