Freakonomics Poll: Would You Stop Someone From Jumping Off a Bridge?

In the last Freakonomics Radio episode “The Suicide Paradox” (you can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or read the transcript here), we talked to a San Francisco cabbie with a long name who said something that caught our attention:

One night I picked up a guy, I think down nearby Tenderloin and he want to go Golden Gate Bridge. Must be 11 o’clock at night. And I said “okay,” so I drove on Franklin Street. He said, “You want to ask me why I go to Golden Gate Bridge this late?” I said, “No, but if you want to tell me I guess I will listen to it.”

And he said “I’m going to go and jump off the Golden Gate Bridge” and I said, “Okay.” He said, “You’re not going to stop me?” I said, “No, why should I?”

The cabbie doesn’t know what happened to his passenger, but he did call the Coast Guard immediately afterwards. Suicide isn’t illegal in the U.S., and as a citizen of a country that prides itself on individual rights – what would you do?

[poll id=”17″]

Ryan K.

Suicide is illegal in most states.

Justin Bassett

No it isn't. No state has had a law against suicide since the early 90s


I think that it really depends on what is going on. Someone with a terminal painful illness should be allowed to take their life if they do not wish to live with the pain.


Great episode, by the way, but I was surprised you didn't cover Chen Sah, who spends his weekends on the Naan-jing bridge in China single-handedly trying to save people from jumping.


Suicide is not illegal in most states. I am a police officer, however, and in my state I am required to take a person who poses imminent danger to themselves or others into custody and place them on an emergency mental health hold (basically transport them to a hospital for a mental health evaluation). So yes, I would stop them if I could, and not just because of the law.

On a different note, the law is interesting in that it assumes that an attempt to kill oneself is a sign of mental disease. In many cases that may well be, but as was suggested in your podcast, can it not be a rational act of a healthy person as well?


I would if I think I stand a good chance of persuading him to not kill himself.


I think the right question here is would you TRY to stop someone from committing suicide. It seems the passenger in your story was reaching out for someone to just say "don't do it." Just because it is someone's legal right (which is debatable, think about the externalities, coast guard searches etc) doesn't mean you should not/ cannot try to convince them otherwise.

Justin Bassett

While it may not be illegal to commit suicide in the US, it *is* illegal to encourage, aid, or assist another in suicide. I can imagine an "Asimov's Laws of Robotics" situation in which a person's inaction is considered in violation of that law.


I actually have done something similar. Once when I was on a subway platform in NYC, I noticed a guy crouched down, oddly fixated on the subway tracks. I went over to him, talked to him for a moment and got the feeling he was possibly drunk, possibly stoned and most certainly down on his luck. I told him he should move away from the track; that it wasn't a good place to be. Without really responding to me, he got up and left the station. I have no idea if he was really trying to jump or if he was just out of it so he could have fallen, but I thought it behooved me to stave off either possibility as best I could.


Would you "stop" someone? I would not physically keep someone from it, but I would certainly talk through with someone to try and persuade them not to.

Eric M. Jones

You talk like suicide is a bad thing.

Did the cab driver get paid? Tipped?

Michael B

California Penal Code Title 10, Sec. 401. Every person who deliberately aids, or advises, or encourages another to commit suicide, is guilty of a felony.

It appears to me (I am not a lawyer and do not know whether this is a crime in fact) that what you've reported the cabbie's actions to be would be in violation of this section if they were true. The suicide attempt is not a crime, but it is evidence of being a danger to one's self, which is grounds for involuntary confinement to a mental health facility. Also, the Coast Guard is great for retrieving a body. They very rarely safely get people out of the water after a fall from that height. The California Highway Patrol or SFPD would have been much more helpful, though I am sure the Coast Guard called them quickly.


So by dropping the guy at the bridge knowing the passenger intended to kill himself, the driver could be convicted of a felony? I would vote not guilty if I were on his jury.

Michael B

In our democracy that means you should call your representative, not just become a jury vigilante. Under oppressive regimes without legislative options for change, a jury was necessary to ensure people weren't tried unfairly. The jury isn't there to decide whether laws are good ideas.

Assisted suicide is a controversial topic with lots of reasons to agree or disagree, but this isn't a reasonable solution because by its logic unpopular but necessary laws wouldn't be enforceable. Speeding tickets come to mind, as do unpaid tax collections.


Once I called a suicide prevention line to aid someone I knew.

Years later this same person stalked and threatened two friends of mine. Made their lives miserable for an extended period of time.

I am torn over whether calling the help line was a net positive.

J. Britt

" a permanent solution to a temporary problem "

Mike B

Yes I guess that suffering from a terrible illness could be considered a "temporary" problem.

Mike B

I feel it is my responsibility as a human being to ask the person about their specific circumstances and if they are absolutely sure they want to carry out their intended action. However I do not believe it is my right to contravene someone's free choice, especially if it is not imposing costs on external parties. If someone has a rational basis for their action, such as being terminally ill or having little to live for due to the loss or absence of loved ones and can demonstrate that they are not making their choice lightly, then I will respect that person's right to make their own decision. However if I felt that the decision was hasty or due to transient circumstances or if their death would cause harm to others, such as their children or family, then I would probably attempt to stop them.

Yes I would be making a call based on personal judgement, but when dealing with something as weighty as this trying to see the world in black and white (free choice is absolute or sanctity of life is absolute) only leads to inefficient outcomes. Some judgement applied to the situation, even if flawed, is going to be better than no judgement at all.



"and as a citizen of a country that prides itself on individual rights"

Sheesh. Bias your questions much?


I don't think that talking someone out of suicide denies someone the right to die.

I am afraid that the person could not be in the right mindset at the time and to make a rash decision about ending their own life. I would rather error on the side of caution to make sure that the person has more time to complement their decision.