Drivers passing over the Río Grande Gorge Bridge on Thursday (Jan. 31) might have thought it strange when Curly O’Connor, founder of the Gorge Bridge Safety Network, extended a thumbs-up …
Drivers passing over the Río Grande Gorge Bridge on Thursday (Jan. 31) might have thought it strange when Curly O’Connor, founder of the Gorge Bridge Safety Network, extended a thumbs-up to a speed limit sign on U.S. 64 West.
But for O’Connor, the sign posted that morning – one of two that marks a speed reduction from 45 miles per hour to 35 on either end of the steel arch bridge – symbolizes another victory in her community’s push to make this iconic landmark and its surroundings a little safer.
“We’ve waited years for this,” she said to Taos County Commissioner Candyce O’Donnell, who joined O’Connor at the west end of the bridge Thursday morning.
“People pass the bridge too quickly,” O’Donnell said. “It’s one way to continue to make the area safer.”
The bridge can see thousands of tourists in a day during peak summer months, with people crowding its sidewalks and sometimes running back and forth from one side to the other to get another angle on the impressive views of the deep rift.
But the combination of speeding vehicles and dense crowds has come at a cost.
In the summer of 2017, an elderly man visiting the bridge with his family was struck by a drunk driver who was speeding past the destination’s visitor center, just a few feet from where the new speed limit sign was posted last week. The man’s leg was severed in the accident. A helicopter touched down on the pavement to airlift him to University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque.
It was one of many accidents over the years, which, coupled with numerous near misses, built support for the speed reduction.
Now, both O’Connor and O’Donnell are pushing for additional improvements at this year’s legislative session in Santa Fe.
House Bill 2, which appropriates funds to state agencies, has earmarked roughly $800 million for the department of transportation. They’re hoping the bridge will see a slice of those funds. Since the bridge opened to the public in 1965, however, earning the state’s buy-in for safety improvements has been difficult.
In spite of the landmark’s longstanding reputation as a suicide destination, some have argued that adding safety features could interfere with the bridge’s sweeping views of the Río Grande Del Norte National Monument. The area has served as a film location for more than one big-budget movie over the years.
But the bridge’s dark side is just as well known.
More than 40 people are estimated to have jumped to their deaths at the bridge in the 50 years since it opened.
O’Connor’s son was one of them, a tragedy she witnessed in 2014. After it happened, she made the same remark that many others have who have visited the bridge or know someone who died there: that the 47-inch-high railings on the bridge are too low for a structure that spans 1,280 feet across and sits 660 feet above the canyon floor.
Some progress has been made.
In 2015, the county installed 10 phones at the bridge which connect a caller to a 24-hour crisis hotline. In the years since, the phones have been utilized on a regular basis by people who come to the bridge with thoughts of suicide.
In 2016, four people, a 14-year-old boy among them, jumped to their death in separate incidents. While not the worst year for suicides in the bridge’s history, the death of a young person prompted the Taos County Commission to sign a unanimous resolution promising to make the area safer.
At last year’s legislative session, Sen. Carlos R. Cisneros introduced a senate memorial to install suicide barriers at the bridge and to make the area accessible for people with disabilities, longstanding requests that still haven’t received necessary funding. Another proposal last year to station New Mexico State Police officers at the bridge also fizzled.
But O’Connor and O’Donnell are hopeful the speed reduction is a sign that other improvements, too, may be on the horizon.
“At least we’ve achieved the phones and now we’ve lowered the speed limits,” O’Connor said. “So we’ve got two things going in our direction.”
Enforcing the new speed limit, however, will be another matter. New Mexico State Police Commander Lt. Edwardo Martínez said his district office will attempt to increase speed enforcement in the area.
“It’s a step,” O’Donnell said.
A car flew by.
“It will probably take a while to get used to it,” she added.
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