B.C. bridges still lack suicide prevention barriers

Despite a coroner's recommendation four years ago to install suicide prevention barriers on five Vancouver area bridges, the province and other bridge authorities say costs, esthetics and questions about their effectiveness have prevented the life-saving upgrades.

Province points to cost and esthetics for delay

A  weathered driftwood log nestled in the beach grass along Burrard Inlet is Rosemary McLaren's frequent perch. It gives her a clear view of the Lions Gate Bridge that rises 61 metres from the choppy seawater to the bridge deck. 

For 75 years, the suspension bridge has linked Vancouver to the North Shore, becoming a popular tourist attraction in the process. But McLaren is drawn here for a different reason. 

The bridge is where her son Jordon Talling took his life.

"In the beginning, I was completely shattered," McLaren says. "I just couldn't really imagine living without my son, he was everything to me. Losing a child is like the cruellest loss ever."

Jordan's friends helped McLaren piece together what happened the night in December 2005 when the 19-year-old found himself on the Lions Gate.

Jordan Talling jumped to his death from the Lions Gate Bridge in 2005. (Family photograph)

He'd been drinking that night. Not enough to be arrested when police pulled him over, but enough that his car was impounded. 

In a panic, Jordon swallowed several tabs of ecstasy he was carrying to a party, McLaren says.  After the police incident, Jordan got into a cab, but told the driver to let him out on the bridge. He started making random phone calls, eventually reaching an old girlfriend.

"And he just said he was going to jump," McLaren recounts. "And she said, 'No, no, no, Jordan. Stay there, I'll come and get you,' and he just went, 'No I'm going to jump.' Click. And that was the end of his life, 12:10 a.m." 

Jordan's body was never found. McLaren says her son was jovial, positive and upbeat.  He was studying to be a sous-chef, and had just bought a new car. He was not suicidal or depressed. McLaren believes Jordan's death came from a drug-induced split-second decision.

"It was just something he could do," she says. "It was convenient for him, at that moment. He could just jump."

Calls for higher railings

That is sadly typical, according to Ian Ross, executive director of the Crisis Centre in Vancouver. He's calling for higher railings on bridges.

"If you go to the Lions Gate," Ross says,  "you can flip your leg over there and be gone in like seconds ... they have to be higher."

In the last six years, 26 people have leapt to their death from the iconic Lions Gate. More than three years ago, the B.C. Coroners Service recommended installing barriers on that bridge and four others in the Vancouver area that are also suicide magnets.

"Barriers work,"  Ross says.

While bridge deaths account for a small percentage of five hundred suicides a year in B.C., Ross says they are entirely preventable.

"It means restriction. It's like when you have gun control, in certain American states, the suicide rate goes down. It's a direct correlation. It's evidence. It's irrefutable. If you restrict means of suicide, suicide goes down."

Study found barriers effective

Barriers were given high marks in a study the provincial government commissioned several years ago.

It sprang from an incident on Canada Day in 2008,  after Vancouver police shut down busy holiday traffic for six hours on the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge. A distraught woman was clinging to the bridge rail over Burrard Inlet.

CBC News obtained a copy of the report by Stantec Consulting Ltd. through an access to information request. Among the consultant's conclusions were that "despite the drawbacks such as high costs and impact on rescue and maintenance crews, physical barriers are considered very reliable and effective in limiting suicides off bridges."

Rosemary McLaren says a suicide barrier on the Lions Gate Bridge would have saved her son's life. (CBC)

That opinion was based on a review of the literature, which "identified that installation of barriers is generally the most effective and also the most expensive solution," the report said.

How expensive? The report suggests suicide barriers for the Lions Gate could run as high as $35 million.

A second study to look specifically at the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge, suggested increasing the existing railing with a suicide barrier fence could cost as little as $5.7 million.

Minister raises traffic concerns

But four years ago, former transportation minister Kevin Falcon wasn't as concerned about cost as what the barrier would look like.

Falcon was stuck in the Canada Day traffic jam. He criticized the police for inconveniencing thousands of motorists, but went further, saying that barriers were "a visual eyesore."

The esthetics of barriers was also a factor in the examination of the issue by Stantec Consulting.  But in its conclusions, the report's authors advised the government to weigh how much money it would cost to save lives, inviting the government to do "a cost-benefit analysis" to "identify the most appropriate prevention strategy." 

The strategy chosen by the provincial government was to install six telephones on the Lions Gate Bridge at a cost of about $4,000 a month. The distinctive yellow phones can connect distraught people with counsellors in the crisis centre where Ian Ross works. They don't get a lot of calls.

"We're getting two or three calls a month," Ross says. "But we've had several interventions, that afterward the caller has said, it saved their life."

An internal memo prepared for provincial Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom last year and obtained by CBC News says the phones were used in over 15 cases in two years, and touts them as a "successful" measure that will be expanded to the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge. 

But the latest statistics provided by the B.C. Coroners Service show that more than a year after the phones were installed in April 2009, the number of suicides off the Lions Gate Bridge actually went up. Eight people leapt to their death in 2010, the highest number in a single year since 1991.

Phones are not barriers

Jordan Talling had a phone in his hand when he leapt from the bridge in 2005.

Ross says the phones are a start, but by no means are they the solution. He says barriers are.

"You're speaking about people's lives, and you have to go where the evidence is," he says.

Elsewhere in Canada, authorities responsible for other deadly bridges have already come to that conclusion.  In 2010, the last piece of fence was laid along the Angus L. Macdonald Bridge that spans Halifax harbour. 


Should the Lions Gate Bridge get suicide barriers? Take our survey.

In Toronto, the Prince Edward Viaduct, also known as the Bloor Street Viaduct, crossing the Don Valley was second only to San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge for attracting the suicidal.

The installation of a curtain of vertical steel rods in 2003, completely eliminated suicides from the bridge. Critics of barriers point out it had little effect on Toronto's overall annual rate of death by jumping. 

But broader studies, like those reviewed by the Harvard School of Public Health in the United States, suggest that nine out of 10 people who are unsuccessful in committing what is usually an impulsive act, never try again.

Even the B.C. government's own study recognized that while barriers are the most expensive option,  saying, "the literature review identified that installation of barriers is generally the most effective," and calling them "very reliable and effective in limiting suicides off bridges."

Transportation minister Blair Lekstrom was not available for comment.

Status quo remains

But the provincial government's reluctance to embrace barriers has set the tone for other B.C. bridge authorities.  Vancouver's Burrard and Granville bridges were singled out by the coroner to be retrofitted.

As he stood on the aging Burrard Bridge recently, Neal Carley, the city manager responsible for the upgrades, was told that since the coroner's recommendation, four people had died by hurling themselves to the water below.

"Truly I find that very distressing, " Carley said, struggling for words.  "I find it very tragic."

It could take another five years before suicide barriers are installed the aging Burrard Bridge, according to city officials. (CBC)

But Carley says it could be another five years before anything's done on the bridge, in part because it's a heritage structure that needs repair, and any barrier has to look good.

"We have to balance the suicide prevention aspect with the other uses of the bridge, including aesthetics", Carley said.

The Patullo Bridge over the Fraser River was also targeted by the B.C. Coroners Service.  It's managed by the regional transit authority, Translink.

Spokesman Drew Snider says Translink hasn't even considered how much barriers might cost, because the 75-year-old  bridge will eventually be replaced "sometime in the next decade."   

All new bridges, such as the Golden Ears Bridge, which was completed three years ago, are being constructed with suicide barriers as part of the design.

Until her son Jordan died, Rosemary McLaren never gave much thought to the idea. Now the arguments about cost and esthetics don't mean much.

"I'm all for the barriers," she says, imploring people to consider what it's like to lose a loved one when all it might have taken to save them was a fence that's too difficult to climb over.

"I'm sure if my Jordie had known that wasn't an option, that he couldn't have jumped off that bridge, he'd be alive today."

With files from Duncan McCue and Calyn Shaw