Audit finds cruise ships improving safety, but some fixes are still to come

McClatchy Washington BureauJanuary 13, 2014 

— The cruise ship industry is working to implement new safety measures for its passenger fleet, although efforts to use technology to detect passengers falling overboard aren’t yet in place, according to a new oversight report.

The report from the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, comes as the cruise industry continues to grow more popular even as safety problems – including the deadly 2012 grounding of Costa Concordia off the coast of Italy – have tarnished its reputation.

Congress passed legislation in 2010 to bolster safety on cruise lines and to beef up the reporting of crimes on the ships. The GAO said that in the years leading up to the legislation, the public often wasn’t aware of onboard crimes – including sexual assaults and physical assaults – because the federal government didn’t require information about them to be published.

The 2010 law, the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act, sought to address many of those issues. Among other things, it mandates that railings be of a certain height, that peepholes or other means to identify somebody on the other side of a stateroom door be put in place, that locks and keys be upgraded and that crime logbooks be maintained and made available to law enforcement agencies.

The disaster off the Italian coast two years ago Monday only heightened public interest in cruise-line safety. Costa Concordia, which ran aground off the coast of Giglio Island, Italy, with more than 4,000 people on board, was so badly damaged that five compartments took on water. Thirty-two people, including two Americans, died.

In the report released Monday, the GAO said the industry and federal agencies had put in place 11 of the new law’s 15 provisions. For their report, GAO investigators visited four cruise vessel ports: Miami; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Los Angeles and Seattle.

Four of the law’s provisions remain in the works, including one to develop so-called “man overboard technology” to detect and then alert the crew to somebody tumbling over the side of a ship. Such technology could include video systems and thermal imaging systems.

The law requires that ships use such systems “to the extent that such technology is available.”

Kendall Carver, the chairman of the advocacy group International Cruise Victims Association, said the technology was available – it just hadn’t been used.

“Our position is the technology is available, and frankly they are not in compliance with the law,” Carver said.

Industry officials, however, told the GAO that the technology isn’t yet reliable in a maritime environment. Among other things, the movement of a ship, the weather and the sun’s glare may affect the results of any man-overboard system.

The industry, however, said it was working on the technology, and four of the five cruise lines that met with the GAO have it or are testing it.

Federal officials have yet to finalize their regulations for the use of man-overboard technology. According to David Peikin, the public affairs director for the Cruise Lines International Association, once the Coast Guard provides guidance on the technology, the cruise industry will comply with it.

The industry has seen an average annual passenger growth rate of nearly 8 percent since 1980. In 2011, more than 16 million passengers traveled on the ships, according to the GAO.

Email: cadams@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @CAdamsMcClatchy

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