Most people look at bridges and admire their landmark architecture and the commanding views they offer. But to those in crisis, the spans beckon for a different, darker reason: as a swift route to self-inflicted death.

This scenario has played out in Maine, where a bridge connecting Prospect and Verona has been the site of at least six suicides – including one last month – since it officially opened in 2007. Now a proposal is before the Legislature’s Transportation Committee to install a suicide-prevention fence on the Penobscot Narrows Bridge. The bill, L.D. 1804, should be supported by the full Legislature. Such barriers have been effective elsewhere; the sooner this one is put in place, the sooner it can start saving lives.

The U.S. suicide rate has been on the rise since about 2001. In 2010, the latest year for which final data are available, it was the 10th leading cause of death.

Shooting oneself is the most common means of suicide; jumping from a bridge or a building is among the least. Meanwhile, the cost of a Penobscot Narrows Bridge safety barrier has been estimated at around $1 million.

But the relatively small number of deliberate jumping deaths doesn’t negate the need to take steps to prevent them. Public safety improvements cost money, but we as citizens believe they’re worth it because they save lives. The 1982 Tyenol tampering killings killed seven people, just one more than the total of people who have died by jumping from the Penobscot Narrows Bridge. The poisoning deaths spurred the nation’s first anti-product-tampering legislation and prompted drugmakers to spend millions of dollars on tamper-resistant packaging widely used today.

What’s more, if suicidal individuals are stopped from jumping, the interruption gives them time to reconsider and allow their impulse to pass – and people who are dissuaded from jumping usually don’t try to kill themselves again.

Psychologist Richard Seiden interviewed 515 people whom police had stopped from jumping off San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge between 1937 and 1971. (That bridge has no suicide barrier.) Years later, according to Seiden, 94 percent of those who had wanted to kill themselves either were still alive or had died of natural causes.

And Seiden’s findings have been borne out in Maine. Between 1960 and 1983, Augusta’s Memorial Bridge was the scene of 14 suicides. Since 1983, when a safety fence was put up, no suicides have taken place from Memorial Bridge. Moreover, there was no increase in the number of people jumping off other structures in the city, “suggesting that suicidal individuals did not seek alternative sites,” researcher Andrew Pelletier found.

Our roads and bridges are supposed to be safe, and when we build them, we incorporate features like guardrails and medians separating opposing lanes of traffic to keep people from hurting themselves accidentally. We should be willing to do all we can to save people who want to die by hurting themselves deliberately.

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