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Toronto should look for realistic solutions to transit suicides

Information about suicide attempts in the Toronto subway system was shrouded in mystery for decades. The public was left to guess, and to spread rumours and anecdotes. Eventually,the Toronto Transit Commission entered something like an era of glasnost, apparently realizing that ignorance often expands rumours.

The TTC now supplies the annual numbers of actual and attempted suicides. They are grim and not infrequent occurrences: about one every two weeks.

The TTC must now decide whether or not to install expensive barriers on subway platforms to prevent suicide. Metrolinx, the entity that governs GO Transit, is talking about ways to prevent suicide, too, in its jurisdiction.

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We have to doubt whether anything will come of this impending decision. The capital budget of the TTC is far from being fully funded, even before any ambitious new project to prevent subway suicide with the help of high-tech precision barriers that match exact positions of the train doors to the barriers.

In 2014, Toronto Public Health reported that 7.7 per cent of deaths by suicide in the city came from collision with a subway train or an automobile. Dramatic and horrific as this always is, violent death by train, with the motive of suicide, is ultimately just one of a number of ways people take their lives in Toronto.

The Public Health report said that Hong Kong and Singapore have had some success with precision barriers. That may be attributable to their being built for new subway and train systems. The TTC, in contrast, has had great difficulty with adding new stations and facilities, projects that can drag on for years. At a cost of $1-billion, retrofitting stations with suicide barriers seems like something that is unlikely to happen.

It surely is not a coincidence that long-established, successful subway systems, such as London and New York, have not departed from their open platforms. A technological marvel may eventually achieve affordable electronic barriers to restrain suicidal passengers, but it's not here yet.

Toronto isn't wrong to consider technology as the solution, but it might be better off simply placing more guards in stations and training them to be on the lookout for people in distress. It seems like the more realistic option.

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