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Death Of Child Thrown Off Bridge Renews Attention On Fencing

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network

A woman from the central Oregon Coast was arraigned in Lincoln County Circuit Court Tuesday afternoon on charges of murder and manslaughter in the death of her son.

She allegedly threw her six-year-old child off a bridge in Newport, Oregon, Monday night. Like most bridges in the Northwest, this one had not been retrofitted with extra fencing designed to save lives.

The postcard-pretty Yaquina Bay Bridge is the symbol of Newport. It's also repeatedly been a magnet for people with suicidal thoughts, as have a number of other spans around the Northwest. Since 2011, three bridges in Portland, Olympia and Seattle have been retrofitted to deter jumpers. Those barriers also make it harder to throw things.

"People have been skeptical if it actually does any good,” said Tom Baker, the state bridge engineer for Washington State Department of Transportation. “But the studies have been pretty conclusive showing that pedestrian screening -- the fencing -- has deterred a remarkable number of people. It's actually very effective."

Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Dave Thompson said that currently "there are no plans" for additional fencing at the Yaquina Bay Bridge. Thompson said his department's focus in terms of retrofits has been on "stopping people from throwing things" from overpasses into moving traffic below, which can be deadly in its own right.

Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
The Yaquina Bay Bridge has not been retrofitted with extra fencing.

Baker said extra fencing gets added "mostly case-by-case" as a need and funding emerges in his state.

In 2011, WSDOT added a safety fence to Seattle's SR 99 Aurora Bridge at a cost of $4.6 million. The state agency also paid for a nearly nine-foot tall fence to deter suicides on the Capitol Way bridge over Interstate 5at a cost of $518,000 in 2011.

The Vista Bridge in southwest Portland was retrofitted with a nine-foot fence that curves inward at the top in 2013 using city funds.

Baker said psychology researchers discovered that barriers like these often caused despondent people to abandon their suicide attempts. It did not divert the problem to other jump-off spots.

The Perrine Bridge over the Snake River Canyon at Twin Falls, Idaho, has been the scene of multiple suicides in recent years. The waist-high railings have not been changed, but in 2011 the Suicide Prevention Action Network and ITD placed signs on the bridge with the message "Need Hope?" followed by a crisis hotline number.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.