Importance of Global Safety Rules

Traveling by sea may be statistically safer than traveling down a motorway, but the potential magnitude of a passenger ship accident means that the consequences of a loss of a ship can be truly horrific.  Thus the safety of passenger ships is extremely important and also quite rightly a matter of public interest.  As with any form of public transport, passenger shipping also raises fundamental questions about the price society is prepared to pay for even higher standards and whether the answers to these questions are the same in every part of the world.  There is no denying that different nations have different priorities and sometimes different standards.  Yet shipping is an international industry for which global rules are a must, rather than a chaotic plethora of differing local regulations.

Shipping in the Public Eye

In certain respects, of course, passenger shipping is a very different business to shipping cargo.  A common complaint amongst cargo ship operators is that they are ‘out of sight and out of mind’ and that their services generally go unappreciated since they have little direct contact with the general public.  For passenger ship operators, however, direct contact with the public is a raison d’ être, and commercial survival is dependent on the forceful marketing of their services to the man in the street.   Moreover, while the emphasis that is now given to the protection of the marine environment can sometimes appear to overshadow that given to the safety of life at sea – the fact that passenger shipping transports precious human beings means that its safety record will always be subject to far greater scrutiny.

The Impetus for Regulation

While other ship types can generate negative publicity, especially in the aftermath of major oil spills, it is passenger ship incidents which are always more likely to capture the public’s imagination, and thus the attention of politicians and policymakers.  Passenger shipping provides a window onto the wider shipping industry and has an important influence on the way it is perceived.

At the risk of stating a cliché, it is important to remember that it was the loss of the “Titanic” which led directly to the adoption of the first international SOLAS Convention in 1914 and the subsequent development of the global regulatory framework which all ship types enjoy today, with the recognition by governments of the important need for global rules for a global industry.

More recently, it was tragedies such as the “Herald of Free Enterprise” – which, amongst other factors, was primarily the result of a simple failure to follow established procedures – that gave impetus to the adoption of the ISM Code.  Since its implementation during the 1990s, the statistics suggest that this codification of best practice, which the ISM Code represents, has done much to enhance the safety performance of all sectors of the shipping industry.  More recently still, although it was over 16 years ago, the tragedy of the “Estonia” ferry disaster contributed to the re-evaluation of the way in which the industry approaches modern ship design, and the importance, not least, of ‘survivability’, when there is an ingress of water, and the ability of damaged ships to get safely to the nearest port.

Commitment to Continuous Improvement

As a consequence, in developed nations at least, the standard of modern passenger ship operations is vastly safer than that of 20 years ago.  Moreover, the procedures to be followed during emergencies at sea, and the specialist training that must be given to all personnel on passenger ships – including hotel and catering staff – have been dramatically overhauled following developments such as the revision of the STCW Convention governing seafarers’ competence standards.

Safety standards never stay still, and the latest SOLAS standards for passenger ships, adopted last year, will make up an important part of the agenda.  This serves to demonstrate that society and regulators will always continue to expect more until the industry’s ultimate goal of zero accidents, zero pollution, and zero loss of life can be achieved.

The SOLAS amendments adopted in 2010 are the culmination of the comprehensive review of passenger ship safety which has been conducted by governments at IMO throughout much of the last decade, and in which the industry associations have been very heavily involved.  Originally intended to focus only on large passenger ships, some Administrations proposed wider-ranging changes, covering all types of passenger ships, both new and existing, whether large or not.


Future Safety Challenge

The outcome of this long and sometimes difficult IMO review is very important.  The continued success of the passenger ship sector is closely linked to the public’s perception of the safety of the ships on which they sail.  There always has to be a balance between maintaining the confidence of the traveling public and proposing rule changes for the sake of demonstrating that something is being done.  Hopefully, the 2010 SOLAS amendments form a package that will adequately address the legitimate concerns raised by governments while also having a tangible impact on the future safety of passenger shipping.

In particular, it is important to continue to reflect on the need to meet the challenges created by the increasingly large size of passenger ships, and the concern that these might have outgrown the ability of existing regulations to ensure the safety of the considerable number of people (in some cases over 5,000), that is passengers and crew included, that may be found onboard the latest vessels.  It is important that one recognizes the desire of governments to be reassured that standards of safety, security, and environmental protection will indeed be maintained and improved further.


Future Ship Design

It is to be hoped that the recent trend at IMO towards the development of performance-based requirements, rather than fixed prescriptive regulations, will help facilitate more innovative individual ship designs and operational solutions, incorporating improvements in safety, environmental protection, technical performance, and passenger satisfaction.

In particular, the recently adopted stability regulations in SOLAS would seem to provide an opportunity for designers to develop more innovative general and subdivision arrangements while maintaining required levels of safety.

One cannot avoid but to remark that many modern passenger ship designs look very similar in their outward appearance, and the shipyards seem to favor a one size fits all approach.  Incredible, attractive, and impressive as current designs maybe, perhaps there is room for even more imagination in the design?


We Should Remember the “Donna Paz”

This article began with a reference to the “Titanic”, which for better or worse is probably the most famous ship or rather shipping disaster, there has ever been  (1,513 lives lost, and 711 saved).  But at the risk of being provocative, how many people amongst the public at large, or even indeed within the wider industry, are similarly familiar with the ‘Donna Paz ‘, the heavily overloaded Filipino ferry which sank in 1987 with the loss of over 4,000 lives – the single greatest loss of life from a sinking ship in peacetime ever.  A huge tragedy.


Learning our Lessons

In view of the high stakes involved in the unfortunate event of a serious casualty involving passenger ships, it is important to highlight the vital necessity of avoiding complacency.  In particular, there needs to be co-operation, and every effort has to be exerted in order to prevent a repeat of some of the tragic disasters that continue to occur in the margins of the industry.  Many of these disasters, in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia have involved domestic shipping, often not directly covered by the SOLAS Convention.  However, for all shipping industry people, these are nevertheless tragedies that should sadden everyone and should certainly concern all.  Organizations such as Interferry, in co-operation with IMO, are working hard to address the challenges confronting passenger ship operators in poorer nations.  But this is an issue which must not be forgotten, even if it is rarely front-page news.


Shipowner Liability

The focus of this paper is passenger ship safety.  However, the flip side of safety is a liability.  In addition to ensuring the maintenance of an international framework of uniform international rules governing safety and related issues of environmental protection, it is also very important that an international framework governing shipowners’ liability in the unfortunate event of accidents involving the death of passengers and crew is maintained.   In particular, given the huge theoretical costs involved, it is vital to maintain the concept of limitation of liability in return for strict liability, whereby it can be ensured that victims can be compensated, regardless of fault, without undue delay or legal wrangles.  Limitation of liability, of course, is paramount to ensure that the risks are actually insurable given the hypothetical possibility of a passenger ship incident involving hundreds or even thousands of fatalities.


Athens Convention Protocol

The Protocol to the IMO Athens Convention on passenger ship liability should provide uniformity when it enters into force, albeit at far higher limits than hitherto, and coupled with strict liability on the part of the shipowner.  But there are serious concerns about the ‘opt-out’ clause in the Protocol.  This allows States, if they so decide, to apply even higher compensation limits than the approximate Athens Protocol figure of one million US dollars per passenger.  It is therefore very important that countries that adopt the Protocol can be dissuaded from using this opt-out clause – which has unfortunately now been duplicated in a parallel  EU Directive – since this will undermine uniformity and deprive insurers of the certainty they will need with regard to their risk exposure.  These are very complex issues, but this could even drive some insurers away from passenger ship risks.  A contraction of the market in this way would be undesirable for all.


Going Forward

Having said all of the above, one should note that, the passenger ship sector today has much to be proud of: some of the finest ships at sea, and a safety record, at least in developed nations, which is most impressive and stands up to the close scrutiny that it is now expected from the regulators.

In conclusion, the main message here is the need for all in the industry to remain engaged in the ongoing discussions at IMO, and elsewhere, about the further enhancement of safety of both ro-ro passenger ferries and luxury cruise ships.   One must always fight complacency and remain focused on the industry’s commitment to continuous improvement.  In the pursuit of safer seas, the industry’s task is to concentrate on building and operating ships in a manner that leaves nothing to chance and to strive with determination to minimize and mitigate error.  Anything less is not good enough.  One life lost is one too many.