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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

IN MEMORIUM; WILLIAM HUSKINSON, M.P.

I hate to admit it but Marcel Proust was probably right. Even people who know history tend to repeat the same idiotic mistakes their grandfathers made, who were, of course, repeating their grandfather’s mistakes - Etc. ad naseum. As proof of this dismaying lack of a learning curve in humans I give you the noble sacrifice of the Right Honorable William Huskisson, Minister of Parliament (above). If Christ died for our sins, then William Huskisson died to prove that the human species are morons.
On September 15, 1830, the first steam powered passenger rail line opened between Manchester and Liverpool, England. Riding in the inaugural train from Liverpool was Mr. Huskisson, stewing over a political beef he had with the then Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington. (Get it? Stewing over Beef Wellington?) When the train stopped at Parksdale station, 17 miles outside of Liverpool, to take on water, Huskisson disembarked, the better to harass the Duke, who was riding in the last car of the same train. As he reached through that car’s window to shake the reluctant Dukes’ shoulder,  the inaugural train out of Manchester roared through the station at the unheard of speed of 25 miles per hour. Mr. Huskisson froze in a panic. The Duke tried to pull Huskisson into his car, but the westbound train was faster than the Duke. It crushed Huskisson’s foot and pulled his leg under the wheels and further mangled it. His death later that night in great agony made headlines all across England - Train Kills Man. And William Huskisson was the first.
In the 175 years since it has become a given that to be killed by a train you have to be an idiot. I mean, it’s not as if trains swerved and hit people at random. Pretty much you have to be on the train tracks to be hit by a train. See tracks, look for train. See train, get off tracks. But according to the U.S. Department of Transportation some 2,618 stupid people in this country were killed by trains in 2010.
But are people stupider for being hit by trains, or are the rest of us stupider for not noticing the consistency with which people avoid crossing guards and ignore flashing warning lights or who look but don’t see a huge locomotive barreling down upon them? Could it not be that perhaps having several thousand tons of steel, which may take a mile to stop, rushing through our neighborhoods “at grade” for the last 170 years constituted a fundamental design flaw? Perhaps being hit by a train is never entirely the victim’s fault. After all, just how smart are engineers who don’t allow for human stupidity in their designs?
I bring all this up to point out that the geniuses who operate the lovely Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco have finally decided to maybe build a suicide barrier on their lovely bridge. The idea is to put something between the potential suicide and the empty space hundreds of feet above the cold ocean water besides a simple waist high railing.
Since the lovely Golden Gate opened on May 27th, 1937, an average of 20 people a year have jumped from the lovely span. That makes around 1,369 people who were so stupid they thought suicide was romantic, and didn’t connect a graceful swan dive with hitting the cold water at something around 75 miles per hour. At that speed water behaves much like concrete. It can't get out of the way fast enough to remain fluid, and if you haven’t seen a jumper who has hit concrete, I highly recommend you avoid seeing one or being one.
The original design for the bridge had a higher barrier but Joseph Strauss, who was the head designer, was a short guy, and he rejected it because it would have blocked his view. The next serious proposal for a barrier on the pedestrian walkway did not come until the 1970’s, after some 600 people had already clambered over the railing. Of course, once the idea was suggested the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which operates the bridge, and the citizens of San Francisco who own it, they all slapped themselves in their collective foreheads and said, “Well, duh!”  Unfortunately, they did not.
The idea was rejected. And rejected again in 1998. And the arguments against a barrier were just….well, stupid. Said the opponents, “If people can’t jump off this bridge, they’ll just jump off some other bridge”. That may be true, but so what? Do we NOT put STOP signs at an intersection because if people don’t collide there, they’ll just crash at some other intersection?
Said the unadorned bridge's defenders, “Why should everybody pay for a barrier to save the lives of a small minority?” By that reasoning, all those suicides were sacrificed so a pint sized engineer could have an unobstructed view of San Francisco Bay -  on those rare days when the fog did not obstruct everybodies' view. It all seems particularly silly, when you remember that the members of the M.T.C. always agreed to a barrier to prevent pedestrians and bicyclists from falling onto the roadway, but remained opposed to one to prevent people from jumping or falling the other way, into the bay. Stupid.
Finally, on August 20, 2010, the M.T.C. accepted the design a steel catch mat, which will hang 20 feet below the bridge. So why did stupid San Francisco suddenly get smart? Well, in 2006 filmmaker Eric Steel released the ultimate snuff film, "The Bridge", staring the lovely Golden Gate Bridge. Over three years Steel had sought to capture the many moods of the bridge by just pointing a camera at the bridge and letting it run. In doing so he had also inadvertently captured 19 suicides on film. When his film was released the public image of the lovely bridge was not so lovely anymore. Of course, the M.T. C. has decided that the $45 million to build the suicide barrier "will not come from bridge toll revenues".   Isn't that the kind of thinking that originally led to those 1,379 deaths?
 Well, given enough time, Mr. Huskisson, perhaps your death will have meaning after all. Someday.
- 30 -

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