Editorial: Revisiting safety on the Sunshine Skyway

A record number of suicides last year prompts the state to wisely review security options on the bridge.
MONICA HERNDON   |   TimesRob Rivard posed for a portrait with a photo of his stepson Chris Machesney, on January 4, 2019 at his home in Tampa, Fla. Machesney died by suicide in November 2018, when he jumped from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. There were a record number of suicides from the Skyway bridge in 2018.
MONICA HERNDON | TimesRob Rivard posed for a portrait with a photo of his stepson Chris Machesney, on January 4, 2019 at his home in Tampa, Fla. Machesney died by suicide in November 2018, when he jumped from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. There were a record number of suicides from the Skyway bridge in 2018.
Published January 13

The grim statistics speak for themselves: Eighteen people jumped to their deaths from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge last year, a record number that surpassed the previous high of 13 set in 2003 and again in 2017. The rise coincides with a steady increase in the suicide rate across the United States and Florida, and the Florida Department of Transportation deserves credit for revisiting how to deter suicide attempts from the iconic bridge.

The state is acting responsibly by looking to better secure public assets under its control. As the Tampa Bay Times' Tony Marrero reported, DOT had for years rejected calls to install netting or fencing to discourage jumping from the bridge. But this month, a department spokeswoman said officials are studying vertical barriers that could be installed along the bridge walls to deter suicide attempts. In addition, the department is about to install new technology that will detect pedestrians and stopped cars in an effort to alert authorities more quickly to a potential jumper.

The Skyway, which connects Pinellas and Manatee counties, has attracted people intent on taking their lives since the 1960s, when earlier versions of the bridge spanned Tampa Bay. But records show suicides began to accelerate when the current bridge, with its cables forming twin triangles visible for miles, opened in 1987. At its highest point, the bridge deck reaches nearly 200 feet. Since the current bridge opened, 236 people, or an average of about eight people each year, have killed themselves by jumping, Florida Highway Patrol records show, making it one of the deadliest bridges in the country. Overall activity on the bridge — suicides, saves and reports of possible jumpers — has generally trended upward, especially in the last decade.

The DOT has fielded calls for nets or fencing on the Skyway for decades. One department study conducted about 20 years ago cited a number of concerns, suggesting that netting could fling jumpers back onto bridge traffic, impede the use of bridge maintenance equipment and ensnare trash and wildlife. Vertical barriers such as a fence are another option. As recently as last month, the department said it had not found a fencing system that would accommodate the truck–mounted arms that extend under the Skyway to inspect the bridge. But in a new email, spokeswoman Kris Carson said the department is concerned about suicides and is researching new barrier technology.

This is a welcome decision - and one that could save lives. The review could take a year, and in the interim, the department will install devices to detect pedestrians and stopped vehicles, which could speed the response times by authorities to the bridge. Some protective measures are in place already; in 1999, the state installed call boxes that instantly connect with a local crisis center hotline. A state trooper patrols the bridge 24/7, further speeding response times. Officials credit both measures with having saved lives.

Fencing and other technologies may be a precaution of last resort, but they could create those few critical moments that mean the difference between life and death. The DOT deserves credit for addressing a terrible reality on the bridge and a trend line that cries out for the broadest response possible.

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