Group seeks barriers to prevent suicides from major bridges

February 7, 2022 GMT

A suicide prevention advocacy group in Rhode Island is calling on the agency that operates and maintains the state’s major bridges to put up temporary barriers to prevent people from taking their own lives while a plan for a permanent solution makes its way through the legislative process.

Bridging the Gap for Safety and Healing says something needs to be done in the short term to prevent suicides as well as accidental falls from the Newport Pell, Jamestown Verrazzano, Mount Hope, and Sakonnet River bridges.

“This thing could drag out forever,” Bryan Ganley, one the group’s co-founders, said of the legislative process in a phone interview Monday. “We can’t wait. All we’re asking is for the (Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority) to put up temporary construction-type barriers. They would not need legislative approval.”

The group has also started an online petition, which had almost 4,200 signatures by Monday.

There were a minimum of 33 fatal falls from the four bridges from 2009 to 2018, said Ganley, citing state Department of Health figures. But from November 2020 until November 2021 there were 12 suicides from the bridges, he said.

The Mount Hope bridge has just a 35-inch (89-centimeter) rail, said Ganley, who has been a volunteer with The Samaritans of Rhode Island for more than 40 years.

“A bridge with a 135-foot (41-meter) drop and a 35-inch rail is like handing a suicidal person a gun,” he said, acknowledging that barriers are just one aspect of suicide prevention, and better mental health outreach is needed.

Although not addressing temporary barriers specifically, Lori Caron Silveira, executive director of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority, in a statement Monday said, “Our bridges need to be safe for everyone who uses them.”

“We are working with legislators and advocates to secure funding to ensure that adding barriers does not negatively impact the structural integrity of the bridges and are prepared to move ahead with an engineering study as soon as funding is identified,” she said.

State Sen. Lou DiPalma and state Rep. Joseph Solomon Jr. plan on reintroducing legislation this week to require permanent suicide-prevention barriers or netting on the bridges.

The legislation stalled last year because there was no money, said DiPalma, a Middletown Democrat. This year, there are multiple possible sources of funding, including the state’s more than $600 million surplus, federal coronavirus relief funds, or the federal infrastructure bill.

The Turnpike and Bridge Authority has already chosen a company to do engineering and design work at a cost of about $1.5 million, he said. The final cost of the project could be as much as $50 million, according to legislative documents, but it could be a year or more before anything permanent is completed.

That’s too long, Ganley said.

Barriers work, he said, pointing to the Bourne and Sagamore bridges that span the Cape Cod Canal in nearby Massachusetts.

In the 28-year period from 1984 until 2012 after 12-foot high fences were installed, there were seven suicides from the bridges, Ganley said, citing figures from the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates both spans. Since 2013, there have been just two attempts.