Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

WMATA suicide: Explaining the impulse to jump in front of Metro trains

October 18, 2011 - 04:14 PM
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Train coming. (Photo: flickr/krossbow)

Last week, according to all reports available to us, a 39-year-old man from McLean, Virginia walked in front of a Vienna-bound Orange Line train last Tuesday just before evening rush hour. The train hit the man, who suffered head injuries, multiple broken bones, and was hospitalized with what WMATA labeled "life-threatening" injuries. WMATA spokesperson Dan Stessel emphasized the great challenge such an apparent suicide attempt caused as Metro stations closed, third rail power was down, and buses were called in to shuttle people from station to station. See the chaos in Rosslyn as west-bound trains discharged their passengers.

Now a week later, via The Examiner's Kytja Weir, we know that the man died this morning and becomes the sixth person to commit suicide by Metro train in 2011, just as WMATA finally says it has begun providing suicide prevention training to its workers. It was only a month and a half ago that an 18-year-old woman killed herself at the Takoma Metro station during the morning rush hour.

How to react? More than one person, in my experience, saw the suicides as selfish in a twisted way — that to commit such an act in a crowded transportation center and in a way that would cause hundreds to be delayed in a commuting nightmare and to force a train operator to witness their death as the 60 mile-an-hour vehicle bears down on the suicidal individual in the tracks. But on an emotional level, I suspect that's the wrong reaction.

The question of suicide-by-train is a much bigger issue than what we see in our own D.C. Metro system. The problem involves accessibility and is an international transit issue that goes back centuries.

After I wrote a piece here at On Foot called, "What Russian literature tells us about D.C. transportation," where I discussed the similarities between D.C. and 19th-century St. Petersburg, a friend Gchatted me:

Hendel, every time I see this whole "What Russian literature" thing, I think "Don't throw yourself in front of the train unless you want to make a really dramatic statement?" I know that's not the answer you were going for, but I like it nonetheless. Thought you should know.

My friend was alluding to Leo Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina and the prominent way the Russian writer featured train-based suicide. That book was published all the way back in 1877. The problem is, truly, nothing new. And he's right. What we're talking about is an especially dramatic suicide method, and that can't help but be a part of the debate.

The Federal Railroad Administration began tracking numbers of train suicides in the last half decade to assess how and why they happen and how they might be prevented, according to a Boston Globe report last year. The FRA has found that there are about 300 to 500 such suicides a year in the United States. A 2008 report indicates that, on a national level, most people who end up on the rails and die are in their late 30s, white, and male. Of those who done so intentionally, I notice a spike in those in their late teenage years as well as those people in their late 30s and early 40s in a chart that breaks down the suicides by age and gender. According to an American Association of Suicidology Powerpoint presentation on rail suicide, most happen not on transit systems like the Metro but along freight-train tracks — 77% in freight systems versus 23% in transit. Rail suicide happens and has happened for years. Why? It's convenient. These reports describe people not taking any actions beyond stepping onto the rail. In a way, the method is more passive — the trains take care of all the work once people enter the tracks. The same impulse drives some people to walk into traffic.

WMATA's spokesperson makes a correct statement in the Examiner pieces: People who want to kill themselves will find a way. WMATA is certainly not responsible for the emotions and depressions that people can fall victim to.

Yet more and more, the notion of accessibility has entered the discussion surrounding suicide. People are, the argument goes, more likely to kill themselves when a method is apparent and simple. Many would point to the presence of guns in a household as such a factor. Others look to bridge design. The most staggering set of statistics, which I first heard cited a few years back, involves Great Britain. You know how Sylvia Plath famously ended her life by sticking her head in an oven in 1963? The gas was on, and she died of carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 30. British stoves transitioned from toxic gas to non-toxic gas from the 1950s through the 1970s, and overall suicide rates dropped dramatically over that same broad time period. NPR reports on a man who didn't jump off the Golden Gate Bridge because he feared crossing many lanes of traffic and being hit by a car. People have begun supporting suicide barriers at the Golden Gate and on other bridges.

In 2003, Transport International describes some ways train systems attempted to deter suicide and reduce such accessibility: a Japanese rail company that experienced a high rate of suicides attempted to counter the trend by setting up mirrors so the individual would have to watch his or herself, by painting rail crossings bright green to liven the person's state of mind, reduced the number of tree branches in outdoor track areas to reduce the privacy, and a company in Calcutta has added calm music and posters to their stations to keep their commuters relaxed.

Is there any one silver bullet that would prevent these suicides? I wouldn't suggest it's likely, just as I wouldn't assume that, as WMATA says, a committed person wouldn't find a way to do it elsewhere. Metro might, internally if not publicly,  make a legitimate argument about the cost associated with suicide prevention. Initial program projections amounted to $250,000 ... and again, the number of 2011 suicides is just six (also add in the costs associated with the Metro delays that inevitably result from these public acts). Are the choices of six people worth a quarter of a million dollars in a transit system straining for money?

But to consider these accessibility factors is important. No singular solution exists to cure the underlying issues but these actions can be taken into account and potentially deter impulsive acts, if integrating these deterrents is feasible. WMATA has said it's including suicide hotline postings within the system, and I hope they follow through with that goal. WMATA first presented their Suicide Prevention Program to the board in September of 2010. It's time that program moves forward in real ways. Because ultimately, of course, we're still talking about people's lives.

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