The D.C. Department of Transportation reversed a previous decision on suicide-prevention barriers on bridges. The agency said in a statement Tuesday they will inspect all bridges to see if barriers are needed.
Dr. Chelsea Van Thof began pressuring the District to install protective barriers after her fiancé died by suicide on the Taft Bridge, in Northwest, as News4 reported. She said installing barriers on bridges could help save lives.
“When I learned how impulsive the act of suicide is, in most cases, and I know it was for Peter, I can’t help but think that he would still be here,” Van Thof said.
DDOT initially told News4 they did not have plans to install safety barriers on the Taft Bridge because of its historic nature.
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Just a few blocks from the Taft Bridge, the Duke Ellington Bridge has 8-foot-high barriers that were installed in 1986, after 40 people died by suicide.
“The fact that the same bridge, essentially — one has a life-saving barrier and the other one doesn’t — blows my mind,” Van Thof said.
A DDOT spokesman said in a statement Tuesday: “The DC Department of Transportation foundational principle is to develop and maintain a safe, reliable, multimodal transportation system. Due to the historic nature of the William Howard Taft Bridge, extensive coordination is required with National Capital Planning [Commission], National Park Service, DC State Historic Preservation Office, and the DC Commission on Fine Arts regarding any modification to the bridge, including placing barriers or fencing. DDOT has begun assessing the District’s entire bridge inventory to ensure they not only remain a safe means of transportation, but also present the needed security for human welfare."
A spokesperson for Mayor Muriel Bowser told News4 on Wednesday that the mayor became aware of Van Thof’s efforts after reading press reports and instructed DDOT to do the assessments.
While D.C. officials are open to the idea of protective barriers on bridges, they do not have the final say. A spokesperson for the D.C. Preservation League told DCist they are also open to the possibility.
The National Capital Planning Commission, which also has review authority, said they have not been contacted about the Taft Bridge issue.
Van Thof said she views the DDOT’s reversal as a win but that she is realistic about the process.
“I cried because in my mind, it was a lot of, like, ‘Don’t get your hopes up, you know, I don’t know what that means if they’re looking at it,’ and stuff like that," she said. "They could look at it and still say, ‘OK, well, we’re not going to do this,’ so I’m cautiously optimistic."
At the Taft Bridge on Wednesday, D.C. resident Bill Tully said he would like to see the barriers installed.
“I think they can make it aesthetically pleasing to the eye, and it could help prevent somebody from taking their life in an instant when they have a crisis, and if they had a little time to think about it, they could get over it and live,” Tully said.
If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.