National Transportation Safety Board to Hold Forums on Cruise Ship Safety – Safety with Limitations

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

More shipsOur maritime lawyers here at Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A. have discussed the increasing number of cruise ship accidents befalling the industry for quite some time. For the past five years or so, it appears accidents and crimes involving cruise ships have begun to skyrocket. Whether the incident involves a problem with the ship itself, such as the Carnival Triumph fire back in February, 2013, an error on a crew member’s part, such as the Costa Concordia capsizing tragedy of January, 2012, or an overall lack of safety and security onboard a ship that facilitates crime, it just seems as though terrible, but preventable tragedies keep happening on the high seas. Luckily, we’re not the only ones who are concerned. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is also worried about the escalating accidents and crimes on ships and has decided to hold a two-day forum on cruise ship safety to address these issues.

The forums will be held today (Tuesday) and tomorrow at NTSB headquarters in Washington, D.C. and will address the issues surrounding the cruise industry regarding safety – or lack thereof. It’s no secret that cruise lines are able to bypass certain U.S. maritime regulations due to the fact that most ships are registered in foreign countries. Until recently, cruise line accidents and crimes were not looked at with as much scrutiny as they should have. However, during U.S. Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing last year, it became apparent that cruise lines were likely underreporting accidents and crimes.

Usually, unless an accident or crime at sea is catastrophic, not much will be revealed to the public. Realizing that the situation within the cruise industry was, in reality, much worse than it appeared to be, the U.S. government has decided to take action not only to improve transparency in cruise crime and accident reporting, but to improve overall cruise ship safety.

During the forums, the NTSB is slated to discuss regulations within the cruise industry, how accidents are investigated, ship design and fire protection, as well as how cruise operators and crew members respond in the event of an emergency.

The NTSB has held numerous forums in the past regarding safety issues across various transportation industries, but oddly enough, this is actually the first time the agency will focus on the cruise industry. While we can say ‘better late than never’ on the one hand, on the other, we can’t help but wonder why it’s taken this long for the organization to bring up the subject of cruise ship safety.

Nearly every week, we hear about an accident or crime within the cruise industry. Some of these incidents center on a ship that experienced mechanical problems, others involve an injured passenger being airlifted to a hospital following a medical emergency, and then there are those that involve criminal acts. In the first few weeks of the year, six people had already gone overboard from cruise lines around the world and a female cruise passenger was brutally raped and nearly murdered. This is just the first few weeks of this year alone. The issue of safety within the cruise industry is not something that was recently brought to the table. Yet, it appears as though the only time decisive action is taken by authorities is when the situation has gotten so terrible and so out of hand, that it seems the only way to improve safety in the cruise industry at this point is through government intervention.

Will these forums truly make a difference? Accident after accident, crime after crime, cruise lines continue to make promises about improving their safety policies, but they don’t seem to be keeping them.  Granted, accidents are going to happen no matter what. Unfortunately, certain elements are out of anyone’s control, but by truly focusing on a comprehensive safety strategy that all cruise operators can reasonably undertake, many of the more tragic accidents and crimes, such as sexual assault and overboard accidents, can be drastically reduced.

Safety within the industry is an issue that continues to be brought up frequently because no matter what happens onboard cruise ships, the core problems, including lack of security, lack of training, lack of surveillance, and several others continue to remain uncorrected.

These forums appear promising, but we shouldn’t get our hopes up. From the looks of it, it seems as though the forums will mostly concentrate on the bare bones of safety, including mechanical issues on ships and inspections, instead of addressing the personal tragedies onboard cruise ships.

After the International Cruise Victims Association, an organization comprised of individuals who have experienced serious accidents or crimes onboard cruise lines themselves or have loved ones who have been affected by cruise ship tragedies, expressed disappointment over not being invited to the forums, Eric Weiss, a spokesman for the NTSB, explained the forum would discuss cruise ship safety, but not security. But can these two topics really be separated? Security is an aspect of safety, perhaps, the most important of all. If cruise passengers are truly ‘safe’, then there wouldn’t be any fear of assault, theft or any other type of crime.

In fact, sexual assault is the number one crime on cruise ships. Assaults are much more common than fires or mechanical trouble. So, why is it that the major issues of safety are not going to be addressed?

According to Mr. Weiss, “Security and crime is not in our jurisdiction.” So, then whose jurisdiction does it fall under? The FBI and the Coast Guard? We already know cruise lines are underreporting accidents and crimes to those agencies. Who is really in charge of enforcing the security aspect of safety onboard cruise ships? That should be the real topic of debate.