Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Should Metro hide its suicides?

January 26, 2012 - 11:45 AM
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Keep it secret. (Photo: Jay Westcott)

Metro board member Tom Bulger raised a surprising question during this morning's WMATA meeting. The board was discussing Metro safety and the various incidents that snarl through our transit system, including some high-profile suicides in recent months. Nearly 20 people died of apparently their own volition between 2009 and 2011. Bulger was concerned. They seem, he said, to be happening more often. He's served on the board since July 2011.

"I have a Golden Gate Bridge suggestion — they don’t report them," Bulger said. "We need to talk about how we handle these suicides, which are related to a number of factors. Maybe the economy. I don’t know. ... We might be better off not knowing about ‘em." 

The immediate response was opposition. How could Metro hide suicides? When someone kills themselves on the Golden Gate Bridge, the impact on traffic is not similar to the delays we would see on the Metro, one person replied. Others quickly shifted the subject, emphasizing instead Metro's suicide prevention program and saying that Metro should address the status of the initiative at a coming meeting. No one else voiced support for hiding Metro suicides.

But once that portion of the meeting ended, the WMATA microphone continued to pick up the chatter, and people continued to discuss Bulger's strange idea.

Some of the Metro meeting's attendees laughed and I heard of a variety of unidentifiable voices weighing in on the notion. 

"I don’t think we can cover up suicides."

"Golden Gate ... I mean have a nice fall…"

"...freedom of the press..."

"It’s also very noticeable … when someone gets splattered over the front end…"

The laughter and voices quickly hushed as the official gathering resumed. Yet the bold idea weighed on my mind.

Should Metro hide suicides? That chatter did not seem especially receptive. People don't, it's true, necessarily have a right to know all the details of how a person ends his or her life, but Metro tends to respect that discretion in the details it gives out. We often don't know the name and specific details about who the suicides are. But to suggest that Metro should conceal that a death has happened on its rail system? It's hard to believe. Let's be glad this was simply casual conversation. To limit the complete fact of a transit death would not be wise for WMATA's communications reputation. The transit agency has, in all recent incidents I'm aware of, been incredibly responsive in providing basic information about what happened as well as any foreseeable impact on transit service. I don't imagine that Metro will change those policies any time soon, despite Bulger's thought.

And as others there knew, a suicide has demonstrable impact for other commuters who ride our trains. Just look to this account from a man who was on a Metro train that killed a suicidal woman at the Van Dorn Street Metro station back in the first week of 2012 for evidence of that.

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