Cruise Lines Adopt New Safety Measures, But is This Enough?

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Life saverCruise ship safety – or lack thereof – has been a recurring problem within the cruise industry as of late. Although safety concerns have always been a topic of debate since the very first cruise ship set sail over a century ago, the past five or so years have been wrought with more accidents and crimes than ever before. The Costa Concordia capsizing in 2012 appeared to be a turning point in the industry that caused maritime authorities to take action and more strictly regulate the industry. Unfortunately, there is not much the U.S. government can do to improve safety because the majority of cruise ships are registered in foreign ports and only abide by the laws of those governments.

The Concordia tragedy took the lives of 32 people and the U.S. government has been working diligently to reduce the risk of accidents and injuries for cruise ship passengers. Sen. John “Jay” Rockefeller called a Senate Committee hearing last year to discuss the lack of transparency in cruise crime and accident reporting and to introduce the Cruise Passenger Protection Act. Since then, cruise lines have been cooperating, slowly, to improve safety features.

Many major cruise lines have voluntarily adopted tighter safety measures, but the ever-increasing accident rate shows that cruise operators haven’t done enough to improve safety.

Several cruise lines adopted a number of safety policies, including carrying a greater number of lifejackets onboard, as well as stowing lifejackets in areas that are more easily accessible. Still, cruise lines are being criticized for the safety features they haven’t incorporated, including improvements to emergency operations and crew member training.

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) held a two-day forum to discuss cruise ship safety. Panel members mostly focused on cruise ship fires, including the fires onboard the Carnival Splendor (2010), Carnival Triumph (2013), and Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Seas (2013).

The forums centered on how ships can improve protection against fires, as well as reviewed how accidents are generally investigated. But there’s a lot more to safety than just fires and equipment malfunctions. Modern cruise ships are nearly three or four times the size they were when the cruising industry began. Ships these days can accommodate over 4,000 passengers, and with more passengers aboard, the likelihood of mishaps is also greater.

During the forum, panel members discussed how a major problem regarding safety is the fact that older ships are being replaced at a slow pace. Newer ships should be equipped with the latest technology to reduce accident rates, for example, infrared detection systems that can alert crew members the instant someone goes overboard.

But aside from extremely advanced technology, one feature all new ships should have is a redundant power system.  Such a system would allow the ship to remain in operation following an engine fire. This was a specific concern during the forum, especially since the highly publicized Carnival Triumph fire disabled the entire ship. As a result, over 3,000 people were left stranded in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico without air conditioning, with meager food rations, and non-working toilets. Had the Triumph been equipped with a redundant power system, at least passengers would have been transported back to port quickly and in comfortable conditions.

The importance of these safety enhancements cannot be ignored, yet, not only are cruise operators failing to include such instrumental technology in their new ships, they are also failing to refurbish old ships. The result? A fleet full of ships that put passengers at risk.

According to cruise industry officials, it is unrealistic to install secondary power systems in ships that have only one engine. Instead, officials claim they are working on ways to better cope with the loss of primary power during an emergency.

From our standpoint as experienced cruise ship accident lawyers, it seems as though cruise operators are just giving the runaround. Installing redundant power systems can cost operators a lot of money – money they would rather spend on improving entertainment features in order to make sure they keep passengers coming back. However, the attorneys at our firm know that it costs a lot more to compensate victims after a cruise ship accident than it costs to install safety features in the first place.

It’s been over a year since the Triumph fire and two years since the Concordia tragedy. In two years, cruise lines could have upgraded at least half their fleet to include a few technological advancements and new ships with better safety features. Yet, we are still stuck in the same predicament. Safety is being ignored because cruise operators fail to see the entire scope of the issue. Safety should not be limited to a few extra lifejackets, it should be a comprehensive strategy that is on-going.

If cruise lines refuse to install secondary power systems, how about hiring trained lifeguards? To this day, the only major cruise line that employs lifeguards is Disney. And it wasn’t until last September that the cruise line did so, and only in response to the tragic near-drowning of a four-year-old boy earlier that year.

Hiring lifeguards is a monumental step toward improving passenger safety, and best of all, cruise lines won’t have to worry about changing the entire makeup of a ship since no actual equipment changes need to be made. But still, cruise lines are not hiring lifeguards. We can only conclude that money is the underlying issue when safety improvements are ignored, because we have yet to hear any other reasonable explanation from the industry.

Trained lifeguards would obviously cost more than regular crew members, but at what point does the cost of a cruise ship accident ever get factored into the equation?

It seems fairly obvious that the NTSB forum was a bust. For the most part, cruise lines have done (and continue to do) whatever they want with little government regulation. Though the NTSB pointed out critical issues with cruise ship safety, we doubt industry officials will actually take the panel’s advice seriously. We’ll believe it when we see it, and so far, we haven’t seen much of an improvement in cruise ship safety.