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Cheers - AE

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Bridges and fences.

As I mentioned yesterday I've been meaning to write something about this for a couple of days but was distracted by the mad genuflections of five Norwegians. Plus I have to be honest that I'd had the idea about going and shooting a bit of video to add to this but I just haven't got round to it and I've now decided screw it, wouldn't add much to it anyway.

On JuliaM's blog I left a comment to the effect that the elf'n'safety mob would no doubt shortly be measuring up the Erskine Bridge for anti-suicide fences, and Julia replied that the Labour mouthpiece had already suggested it. Well, no great surprises there. People may have been jumping off the Erskine Bridge more or less since the damn thing was put up, but it's clearly not been sufficiently newsworthy until now. The tragedy of a teenage double suicide changes all that and suddenly it's important to avoid a repeat occurrence. Detect a sceptical note in my tone? Damn right you do.

The story has reminded me of something going on here in Melbourne at the moment. Here we have the West Gate Bridge, noteworthy for having a serious fatal accident during construction, being a damn sight bigger if a lot less photogenic than that coat hangar they have in Sydney, and for having half a dozen or so people a year choosing to kill themselves by jumping off it. At it's highest it's about 200 feet or so and while you're going into water at that point, always assuming you don't land on the deck of any of the shipping that regularly passes underneath to get to Melbourne's docks, it's going to be pretty damn hard from that height. Nevertheless people do very occasionally survive the fall, though some of them do go on to drown very shortly afterwards. Anyhow, they've been talking about putting fences up for years apparently, and this year work finally began after the thick end of a decade (perhaps more) of discussion. What prompted this? Well, they may have been planning it for this year anyway but I can't help thinking that the tragic death of Darcey Freeman had some effect. Little Darcey died back in January shortly before her fifth birthday after falling from the West Gate Bridge, apparently having been thrown off by her father, Arthur Freeman. What the hell possessed the guy to do it we can only speculate, especially since his murder trial is just about to get underway. No doubt things will be clearer after the verdict but what is known at the moment is that Freeman and his wife were estranged and that he'd gone to pick the kids up some time previously, but instead of taking them to school on Jan 29th he went via the West Gate instead. Bad or mad? A bastard who so badly wanted to hurt his ex in the most horrible way possible he was prepared to throw one or more of his three children to their deaths? Or someone whose mind had broken in some way and who was going to commit suicide as well? Lots of people, most of whom are parents themselves naturally enough, would quite cheerfully shoot him in the face or pitch him off the bridge as well. Not being one myself I'm happy to sit back and let the court do its job, and in the meantime watch the glacially slow pace of installation of the mainly anti-suicide fence but also anti-throwing-other-people-off fence on the West Gate.

Where we are at the moment is that fencing started going up back in March. This was basically a strip of concrete barriers down each side of the bridge - getting on for 5km in other words - with the same kind of fencing you sometimes see around building sites sticking out of the top, which in turn is decorated with a little razor wire. Great stuff, except for one or two things. They've put it between the emergency lane and lane one which leaves nowhere to go in the event of a breakdown - and I have broken down on the bridge and was bloody glad of that emergency lane, I can tell you. Now, granted the concrete/fence/razor wire combo is a temporary job to protect the workers putting up the proper fence, and presumably we get the emergency lane back again when they're done. Fair enough, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of fence putting up going on and hasn't been for months. A short section got put up on the northern side of the western end of the bridge very quickly but I haven't noticed anything since. Admittedly I don't go over the bridge more than once a month or so on average and haven't specifically looked to see how much the fence has grown by, but if it's such a big deal you'd think they'd have finished by now. As it is six or seven months have gone by and all I've noticed is the occasional vehicle parked between the temporary fence and the original waist high won't-stop-jumpers one that the bridge has had for ages. I suppose it might be a hive of activity a lot of the time and I keep missing it.

But more seriously, is it actually going to help? What they're putting up might have helped Darcey Freeman, or might not. All depends on strength and weight and height. I reckon I'm big enough to chuck something the weight of a small child over it and even Mrs Exile, who's height is... well, let's just say she was never going to play for the Australian netball team, even Mrs Exile reckons she's strong enough to get a toddler over there. But let's say I'm wrong or that the next Arthur Freeman is dealing with an older and bigger child. Would they drive up on the bridge and just stand there looking dumbly at the fence? No. The sad truth is that it's nigh on impossible to legislate to prevent this kind of thing. As far as I'm concerned if the jury find Freeman was aware of what he was doing they can let the bastard rot in a cell, but it's probably wishful thinking to suppose that similar events have been prevented. And that's before considering a determined suicide. Fences can be climbed and frankly if someone's planning to die I'm not even sure about the razor wire. If that's so we're making the bridge look like something from 1980s East Berlin for little or no benefit. Sure, it's not the world's best looking bridge to begin with and given a choice of sexy or safe I'd say make it safe too. But I'm sorry, there has to come a point when you need to stop and think about whether you're just going to move the problem elsewhere. This is apparently costing $10 million, and if you said that saved 100 lives over ten years I'd agree that 100 grand per life saved is a more than fair price. But if it means that 100 people over ten years simply go for a walk in the forest with a rope I don't see we've gained a single thing. Come on, this is Australia for Christ's sake - you can almost guarantee your own death by going into the bush and annoying the wildlife. Yet we're told that the temp fence has already saved a couple of lives. How?

I'd assumed they hadn't bothered putting a fence in before now because it's vehicle access only and so you don't have the problem of someone all depressed and miserable walking along and suddenly thinking that since they're here they might as well end it all by jumping, or that the authorities had recognised the fact that removing all options for suicide is patently impossible and that a determined suicide will not be put off by fencing a bridge. There are too many alternatives to list but even if we're sticking just to jumping from high places Australia has over 20,000 km of coastline, and plenty of it consists of cliff tops. But, say the well wishing fence demanders, people sometimes commit suicide on impulse. Sometimes someone depressed will simply be driving across and think 'sod it, why not', and if you make it difficult for those people to kill themselves there they'll possibly have had a rethink and changed their minds by the time they find somewhere more practical to do it. This is an argument I'd hadn't considered before and have only come across in the last couple of days. I've not thought about it that long but I'm not entirely convinced. It's certainly plausible enough but the numbers? I'd have thought that you can only attempt to work out what the proportion of carefully planned vs impulsive suicides are by talking to those who survive suicide attempts, and I can't help but feel the carefully planned ones are much less likely to survive - that'd be kind of the point of planning it. Then there's how long the impulse is expected to last. If it's a real spur of the moment thing then it may be enough to deter someone for a matter of a few seconds, but if it needs to have an effect for more than ten minutes the potential suicide has got enough time to shuck the seatbelt and drive down the road at full speed into the first bridge support. Once again it all depends on the people involved. The two girls in Scotland, assuming theirs were impulse suicides, had all the time it took to walk to the Erskine Bridge and get up onto whatever rail or fence it has to stop simple accidents in which to change their minds. They didn't, and that means that even if it was impulsive they were sufficiently determined that had the Erskine Bridge been fenced they'd probably have gone somewhere else in he first place. Other people.... dunno.

So where I am on this now is unsure. A couple of days ago when I left the comment on Julia's blog I was sure that suicide fencing was completely ineffective and a waste of money. Now I've come across an argument that actually makes some sense, even if it won't stop all and maybe not even a majority, I'm a little unsure. My gut feeling is still that there should not be fences, not least because I believe that when someone who wants to stop living they should be talked to but not physically prevented unless they're going to affect others. I think that's where the line should be drawn. The case for suicide barriers on underground rail networks is convincing, and on the observation decks of buildings where someone would fall into the street it's overwhelming. Bridges? My mental jury is very much out on this one, but It's probably going to go for the status quo without some examples of jumper suicides causing harm to others.

1 comment:

JuliaM said...

"The case for suicide barriers on underground rail networks is convincing..."

Agreed. It's hellishly inconvenient for the other passengers and the train driver. Why do they always pick rush hour, too?

But fencing off every bridge and high place? Madness. madness...

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