DOTD: Fence not answer to stopping jumpers off Hale Boggs bridge

The Hale Boggs Memorial Bridge
The Hale Boggs Memorial Bridge in Luling where people have jumped into the Mississippi River.

Startling police photos recently showed a Luling man jump over the railing of the Hale Boggs Memorial Bridge to the Mississippi River below, but his ease at accessing the bridge isn’t “a design issue” or even a legal one, according to authorities.

“Suicide is not part of the design criteria,” said Rodney Mallett, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD). “The small areas on the bridge are only for emergency use and not for use for any other reason.”

The body of the Luling man, although not named by the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office, was recovered July 28 in the river near St. Rose. But the Sheriff’s Office said it’s not discussing bridge suicides at this time.

Parish Councilman Paul Hogan said the only discussion that should be dedicated to this is one about providing mental care.

“It’s time for people who are troubled to get them the help they need,” Hogan said. “My cousin jumped off the Huey P. Long Bridge. If someone wants to kill themself they will do it. If the bridge is unavailable they’ll go somewhere else to do it.”

It was apparently the case with the man who jumped off the bridge on July 27 when a dash camera showed him walking past a deputy’s car and leaping off the rail.

St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne said the situation posed many possibilities about the man being mentally ill and the public’s concerns about what could have been done to stop him.

“Probably a lot of people got upset,” Champagne said. “They figured why didn’t ya’ll stop him, but the deputy in that case actually went up there and pulled up in front of the guy. He saw him walking up and got out of his car.

“All he knows is he’s got a guy walking up the bridge. He’s breaking no law. The deputy says, ‘I need to talk,’ but the man clenched his fists and left the deputy with the question about him getting aggressive… and there’s heavy traffic coming up the back.”

The sheriff said the deputy couldn’t know whether the man had a weapon or could end up fighting him so he backed off. The deputy attempted to talk to him on the loud speaker, but the man kept walking.

The parish’s deputies are trained to deal with people who may be mentally ill, but there are many factors that have to be considered in any situation, Champagne said. In this case, dash cam photos were released to help identify the man, which it did do.

For the bridge, however, Mallett emphasized the DOTD builds and manages roads for drivers.

It can provide numbers on crashes, but not on people who jump off the bridges it builds and maintains, he said. Even the emergency lanes are for pedestrians in emergencies when they need to be on the shoulder.

Mallett agreed suicide is a mental issue that’s handled by mental health authorities.

The Hale Boggs bridge does not rate among the bridges with the highest suicide rate in the nation, though they do occur there.

In March of this year, a man jumped to his death even as deputies tried to stop him. In August of 2014, a Hahnville High School graduate jumped off the bridge after apparently leaving his vehicle running on the bridge with a suicide note inside the vehicle. A year earlier, a former teacher left her vehicle in the emergency lane on top of the bridge and witnesses saw her jump over the rail.

Suicide prevention advocates believe suicide by bridge is more likely impulsive and barriers can significantly reduce them.

But Hogan and fellow Councilman Billy Woodruff also agree no one can stop someone determined to commit suicide, especially on a bridge.

“It’s unfortunate, but we can’t put provisions in place everywhere to stop people from doing what they want to do,” Hogan said. “All we can do is get them some help.”

Woodruff added he doesn’t see the Parish Council playing a role in upgrading safety on the bridge.

He also takes the position that a suicidal person will commit the act, recounting several incidents of people intentionally stepping in front of 18-wheelers on the outskirts of the parish.

“These people need help,” he said. “It’s not our job to put up a fence to keep them from jumping.”

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