Time to Raise the Bar on Cruise Ships?

| Thursday, 11 Oct. 2012

Some 20 to 25 people go missing every year

Ed. note: I wrote this piece to bring the debate to the forefront, not to advocate for either side. I feel there is a real problem, but there may also be other answers. If anyone has alternative ideas, I would like to hear about them.

I have resisted raising this argument for more than a year now, and have had this article ready for some time now, but I held back even as I read about a 70-year-old woman who went missing from the Veendam last week. This morning I opened up my cruise news and saw yet another report of a woman who had gone overboard from the Aurora. Two different ladies within weeks.

When Congress hammered out the Cruise Safety Act of 2012, testimony from a group called International Cruise Victims (ICV) included several recommendations. One was that cruise ship railings should be raised high enough that no one could fall or jump off the vessel. At the time, I opposed this measure because I am convinced that no one accidentally falls off of a ship. Nor do I believe that people are pushed off of cruise ships - presumably as a means to cover up to a crime.

However, as I continue to see reports of people "going missing" from cruise ships, I become more troubled about these questions. I am troubled by the number of reports we see of people "disappearing" from cruise ships, as high 25 per year, roughly an incident every two weeks.

The Tough Statistics

I have long contended that the vast majority of passengers who go overboard are suicides, and I still believe this to be true. Suicide is now the leading cause of death among young adults (as of 2009), ranking higher than car accidents, according to a new study by the American Journal of Public Health. The study blames the recession as well as improvements in car safety.

I have also read studies estimating that for every completed suicide in America, there are an estimated 50-100 suicide attempts (2.5 million annually). What's more, studies also indicate that an attempt at suicide is five times more likely to happen when a means to do so is readily available - such as having a gun in the house.

For someone intent on killing themselves, falling from a cruise ship is almost certain to work - possibly more-so than some people realize. I realized it the first time I saw the powerful and mesmerizing sight of water washing along the hull when a ship is under way. Having witnessed the strange and awesome attraction of this sight personally, I have written essays recommending that anyone with a history of suicide attempts should not take a cruise.

I have also written that I suspect some younger people do not realize the true danger of going overboard on a cruise ship. They may jump intentionally, believing they can survive the fall and swim to safety. They may see land over the horizon and think they can swim to it, or they may think that at worst, someone will throw them a safety ring or they will be able to float until they are rescued.

Neither is a sure thing. First of all, it is extremely difficult to judge distance at sea. An island that appears to be five miles away when seen from the top deck of a ship may be invisible at water level because it was actually 50 miles away. Furthermore, even the slightest white-water conditions at sea make it virtually impossible to sight a person in the water -- even up close -- because every little splash looks the same.

How do you feel about this issue? Tell us here: Raise the Bar on Cruise Ships

It is Time to Raise the Bar?

A news story that says a person has "gone missing" from a cruise ship is not proof of a crime. But it certainly begs the question on how or why it happened. To be clear, it is well-known that almost all of these people are solely self-responsible for putting themselves over the sides - because we now have video surveillance to rule out foul play. We just don't hear the truth out of respect for the families who may not want that information released publicly.

But what we don't know is what state of mind they are in when this happens. There are too many cases where we hear of a young person who was looking forward to an important event in life. It just doesn't make sense.

Now - changing ships to make them jump-proof would require a large aesthetic change - one that has not been done to the Golden Gate Bridge, for example, although dozens of people jump from there every year. New York City does not have a law requiring apartment windows to have bars, only a law requiring landlords to install bars on windows at the request of the tenant if there are children in the household.

In 2008, there were 98 confirmed suicides by jumping from tall buildings in New York City. By coincidence, the population of New York is roughly equal to the number of Americans who take a cruise every year, and according to the widely cited "Cruise Junkie" web site, between 10 and 25 people go overboard each year from cruise ships and ferries (23 in 2011, and 18 already in 2012). In the majority of these cases, the missing person is never found.

Stats from CruiseJunkie: 2005: 16, 2006: 22, 2007: 20, 2008: 10, 2009: 25, 2010: 20, 2011: 22

Who is to Blame?

Is this the cruise industry's fault? No, it cannot be proved that the cruise industry is responsible for their fate. The security cameras have never indicated a case of an overboard where it was determined that a crime occurred. Even accidents are very rare, and invariably the victim put himself into an unsafe situation that preceded his fall -- and alcohol is often involved. Nothing indicates that these people went missing due to a crime or a design failure - but that doesn't mean it isn't still a tragedy.

How hard would it be to raise the railings on cruise ships? From a manufacturing standpoint, not hard at all. Existing railings would simply need to be replaced with taller ones -- with bars of steel strong enough to prevent bending. Neither would it be outlandishly expensive (although in this economy every dollar makes a difference to the company's bottom line and the cost of cruises for patrons). The new railings would have to be so tall that a determined person could not get over the top even by using a chair or table. The worst effect would be aesthetic. From the shore they would make a cruise ship look more like a prison than a resort at sea. But they would not demonstrably detract from the view or picture-taking for anyone looking through the railings.

Still, if polled, I tend to think most people would not see the danger of a lower railing, and as in New York, they would not want the extra safety measure taken. When I lived in New York City, I asked the landlord to take the bars off of my sixth-story window. I didn't want my view affected, and I did not like the impact of the bars on my interior décor. I suspect many cruise passengers would feel the same way. But what if they knew that these taller bars meant 25 more loving family members might be with us today?

Is it time to raise the bar on cruise ships? Although it means added expense and an effect on the aesthetic design of the vessel, I do think the time for this debate has arrived. The cruise industry is currently undertaking a reappraisal of its safety standards, and this would be a big step in showing the world that cruise lines are serious about the well-being of every single passenger, even if it means the actions of .002% will affect the experience for everyone.

How do you feel about this issue? Tell us here: Raise the Bar on Cruise Ships

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