On the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking, it’s worth remembering that safety is and always will be relative. Though lifeboat drills have proliferated since 1912, catastrophes still occur. We can’t simply blame the engineers when things go wrong because, no matter how well they plan, things don’t always go according to plan.
The Titanic is a great example. The ship’s owner, the White Star Line, convinced itself and potential passengers that the new vessel was “unsinkable,” but no good engineer should have agreed. Engineers must weigh safety against other features. The Titanic, like all designs, was a compromise.
A century later, it’s easy to second- (or third- or fourth- or fifth-) guess the planning of this enormous ship. Conflicts between those who design large technological systems and those who pay for them are resolved by negotiation, a process that doesn’t guarantee safety. Thomas Andrews, the Titanic’s designer who went down with the ship, wanted bigger bulkheads — watertight walls that separate parts of a ship below decks — and more lifeboats, but White Star wouldn’t provide them. The Titanic did have the then-legally required number of lifeboats, but Andrews knew that it was far too few. One row of lifeboats was even removed before sailing to preserve one deck’s view.
Meanwhile, the Titanic’s bulkheads were not tall enough to compartmentalize the ship under all circumstances. It could have withstood a head-on collision with an iceberg, but not a hole along its side that flooded multiple compartments.
Of course, that’s exactly what happened. So much water rushed into the forward compartments that the Titanic’s bow dipped. Water cascaded sternward over the tops of the bulkheads and filled compartments further back, sinking the ship. The bulkheads were a fatal flaw.
Had the Titanic not sunk, competing steamship lines may have wanted to one-up White Star by building still larger ships with fewer lifeboats and bulkheads (which restrict passenger movement), resulting in even more dangerous vessels. The sinking provided a wake-up call that fundamentally changed maritime regulation, including the establishment of an International Ice Patrol. Stronger ships outfitted with enough lifeboats to accommodate passengers and crew became the norm. Overall safety was improved by tragedy.
Today, cruise ships larger than the Titanic have safety and navigation features, such as sonar and radar, that were unavailable to the Titanic’s designers. Yet the Costa Concordia, the vessel operated by a subsidiary of Carnival Corp. that ran aground in January off the coast of Italy, had obvious vulnerabilities that modern technology couldn’t eliminate. The hull of a vessel so massive could still be ripped apart by a collision with a jagged underwater rock, for example. Everything, even a steel hull, has its breaking point.