Are super-sized cruise ships a giant safety hazard?

| November 6, 2013
The largest cruise ship in the world, the Allure of the Seas

The Allure of the Seas (Royal Caribbean) is currently the largest cruise ship in the world, weighing over 225,000 tons and nearly a third of a mile long. (Photo by Rennett Stowe)

You’re enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime vacation aboard a luxury cruise liner. There are night clubs, a shopping mall, water park and every type of dining destination you can imagine. But what regulations are in place to protect you –and the thousands of other passengers – and prevent a dream from turning into a nightmare?

Cruise ship safety regulations have evolved over the years, dating back to the infamous sinking of the Titanic – which brought about a minimum required number of lifeboats, among other safety procedures. But today, many experts and critics say recent disasters demonstrate that cruise ships have outgrown the patchwork of regulations that govern their safety, making the behemoth floating cities the “Wild West of the travel industry.”

While the U.S. Coast Guard inspects all ships that embark passengers in American ports, the ships are primarily regulated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), an agency of the United Nations which mandates safety standards, including the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) treaty.

According to an April article from the International Business Times, “IMO doesn’t have the authority to enforce its own guidelines, nor is it able to impose fines or sanctions on cruise lines that defy Safety of Life at Sea recommendations.” The article states that these obligations fall to the country in which the ship is registered, and most companies opt for those “flag states” which have the lowest costs and oversight.

Recent safety mishaps on cruise liners

This hodgepodge has come under scrutiny over the last few years, following a series of high-profile safety  incidents aboard these pleasure Leviathans.

There was the tragic incident last year when the Costa Concordia, owned by Carnival, ran aground off the coast of Italy, capsizing and killing 32. This February, the Carnival Triumph made headlines when passengers were left without power, adequate food and plumbing following an engine room fire. And in 2010, there was a fire aboard the Carnival Splendor, which required passengers to eat helicopter-delivered Navy rations and swelter without air conditioning while the ship was towed to San Diego. A Coast Guard investigation into the 2010 fire found that deficiencies in the operation, testing and maintenance of the firefighting system contributed to the debacle.

New regulations being developed to govern cruise ship safety

As a result of these incidents, earlier this year Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) proposed that cruise operators voluntarily adopt a “Cruise Ship Passenger Bill of Rights” to ensure sanitary conditions, functioning backup power and adequately trained medical staff at all times. All members of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) agreed to adopt it, even though most of the rights laid out in the statement were already standard practice. The statement can be found prominently displayed on the websites of cruise lines – not just those affected by the recent disasters, but others eager to brush off any tainted public relations.

In July, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) went a step further, introducing the Cruise Passenger Protection Act ahead of a Senate Commerce Committee hearing regarding cruise industry oversight. The proposed legislation, which is now under review by the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, would provide protections for passengers in regards to crime but also revise “vessel design, equipment, construction and retrofitting requirements.”

Concerns about vessel size

However, some in the industry are not only concerned with the extent of the regulations but the size of today’s ships, which are more than four times larger than those found 30 years ago.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation, which represents seafarers and crew members, has expressed concerns about evacuation times and suggested the need to limit the number of people aboard ships, depending on where they operate and what search-and-rescue facilities are available.

As early as 2000, William O’Neil, the head of the IMO, expressed concerns that safety precautions had not grown in proportion to the size of today’s cruise liners, according to NBC News. While O’Neil’s call for a regulatory review resulted in a new rule – 2010’s Safe Return to Port, which requires new ships to have sufficient redundant systems for power and steerage, only about 10 ships built since then comply with this new rule, according to the article.



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