By Don Usner | August 20, 2019
Ever since Curly O’Connor saw how effortlessly her son Cooper surmounted the 47-inch high railing of the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge in Taos, she has been determined to do something to stop other people from jumping off that iconic structure.
It is why, after her son’s death in 2014, she started the Gorge Bridge Safety Network. She is sure she could have stopped Cooper if only the railing had been higher. It seems so “simple and necessary,” she says.
O’Connor has found a lot of support for her ideas, including advocates in the county and state governments. And yet she has also faced much resistance.
The Taos bridge is one of New Mexico’s premier tourist destinations, a featured location in movies such as Easy Rider, Twins, and She’s Having a Baby. In 1966, it was named “Most Beautiful Long Span Steel Bridge” in the country and it is listed on the State Register of Cultural Properties and included in the National Register of Historic Places.
Over the years, state lawmakers have passed numerous memorials and legislation proposing ways to make jumping off the bridge more difficult. In 2009, the New Mexico Department of Transportation presented four designs for barriers on the bridge but acted on none of them.
Some suicide prevention efforts have been postponed by a lack of funding; others have provoked claims — since debunked — that additional barriers would raise the bridge’s weight over its design limit.
Safety barriers have reduced or eliminated suicides at numerous bridges worldwide, but there is almost always widespread resistance — usually out of concern that raised railings or nets will detract from the aesthetic appeal of the structures or ruin their vistas. Other arguments hold that people intent on ending their lives may be stymied by barriers but will ultimately find a different way to kill themselves — an idea that has also been soundly countered. Research has shown that persons thwarted in utilizing a preferred method of suicide do not typically seek other approaches to killing themselves.
Curly O’Connor understands that argument. “I know that suicide by gunshot is the highest form of suicide, and if we had gun reform, that might change things — but if we can change this one thing, maybe we can change other things as well,” she said.
Other places with iconic bridges have faced similar backlash against adding safety measures.
Suicide prevention advocates lobbied for years before securing a barrier on the Cold Spring Canyon Arch Bridge — the highest bridge in California. It took even longer before the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco won approval for a different kind of deterrent: construction began only last year on a 600-ton, $211 million suicide prevention net to hang 20 feet beneath the heavily trafficked walkway.
In early 2015, the Department of Transportation installed 10 telephones at the Taos bridge, each with a sign reading: “There is hope. Make the call.”
The call boxes are connected to a suicide prevention hotline staffed 24 hours per day. But their effectiveness has been called into question, with critics decrying them as a halfhearted gesture and cynics pointing out that the boxes could actually serve as a physical step up that makes clearing the railing even easier.
Since the addition of the call boxes, efforts to erect a barrier have stumbled forward two steps and back one. In the 2018 legislature a bill was put forth to allocate $156,000 a year to keep state police officers on-site at the bridge day and night. Members of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee voted unanimously to block the bill, citing skepticism with the practicality of the scheme.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline conducted research and concluded in 2008 (and reaffirmed with new evidence in 2017) that bridge barriers are the optimal means for preventing suicides from bridges. In August of last year, the state Department of Transportation, working in conjunction with the Federal Highway Administration, held a meeting in Taos to present the results of its own study, which concluded that the best alternative for reducing the number of deaths at the Taos Gorge Bridge is to build a vertical railing several feet high.
A memorial in the 2018 state legislative session called for the transportation department to “work toward” providing suicide barriers and creating better access for visitors with disabilities. No action has followed.
NOTE: At the end of July, the New Mexico Department of Transportation released a long-awaited feasibility study to evaluate three alternatives for suicide prevention systems for the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge: the addition of a vertical railing eight feet high, installation of a net suspended beneath the bridge, or doing nothing. The exhaustive analysis concluded what O’Connor has believed all along: a high railing is the best and most practical deterrent for suicides at the bridge. But the planning process is not over: this alternative must still be presented to the State Historic Preservation Office and local planning organizations for their approval.