ANNAPOLIS (March 4, 2020)—The State Highway Administration would be authorized to post suicide prevention information on existing electronic highway signs under new legislation proposed in the Maryland Senate.
Senate bill 810, which is expected to be heard in the Finance Committee Wednesday, would authorize usage of the signs within a five-mile radius of high-risk suicide zones, such as the the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, D-Montgomery and the bill's sponsor, told Capital News Service adding suicide prevention information, such as a hotline number, would be along the same lines as active Amber and Silver Alerts, which are displayed along with standard traffic-related messages.
While Waldstreicher said the highway administration would make the determination for what constitutes a high-risk suicide zone, one area he specifically highlighted was the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which is 186 feet above the water at its highest point.
"We wanted it to be enabling legislation, not prescriptive legislation," Waldstreicher said. "We wanted to provide flexibility for SHA so they might be able to implement it."
In a statement to Capital News Service, a Maryland Department of Health spokesperson wrote the department is "currently evaluating introduced legislation through its internal review processes" and referred further questions to Waldstreicher.
According to the most recent statistics available from the Maryland Department of Health's Vital Statistics Annual Report, the state's age-adjusted suicide rate in 2018 was 10.2 per 100,000 people, the highest in a decade, according to the report.
Waldstreicher said the idea for the legislation was brought to him by Jillian Amodio, the founder of Moms For Mental Health. Amodio said her Annapolis, Maryland-based group, which she said has more than 1,500 members, strives to end the stigma around mental-health struggles.
In January, the Anne Arundel County Council voted unanimously to declare suicide a public health crisis in the county. Amodio said many of her group's members have been touched by suicide in some way and she said the group often hears about people jumping off the bridge. She said those cases are traumatic not just for the suicide victims, but for the witnesses and first responders as well.
Amodio said people who think about suicide often make a quick decision and the new legislation could help change that. She said the messaging could also serve to help people who are struggling in any way.
"That decision can be made in a matter of seconds, but that decision can also be changed in a matter of seconds just by someone reaching out," she said. "If someone's on their way to the bridge thinking about this and they see a message that says, 'you are not alone,' maybe that could have a positive impact."
Amodio said she was told by the Maryland Department of Transportation that it loved the idea, but the state prohibits any messages on the electronic signs that are unrelated to traffic.
In a statement to Capital News Service, Shantee Felix, a department spokesperson, wrote "Federal guidelines dictate that the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration use its message signs to share transportation related messages that support traffic safety and mobility."
Felix added that Maryland code "requires that Amber and Silver alerts are broadcast via overhead message boards as disseminated by Maryland State Police."
According to a legislative analysis of the bill, the SHA is responsible for more than 16,800 lane miles of road and 2,500 bridges. The legislation could be implemented using existing budgeted funds, the note states.
In a January 2017 position statement regarding suicide prevention on bridges, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline supports highway signage.
While barriers are the most effective prevention method, "Lifeline recognizes that
"promoting access to lifesaving means"—such as signage or other public education media near bridges that promotes awareness of hotlines (such as 800-273-TALK) or other suicide prevention services—is a supplement to bridge barriers."
Amodio said even if the messages were flashed only a few times a month, it could have an impact.
"It might serve somebody who's kind of in the right place at the right time and needs to hear that message," she said.