A previous online version of this story misstated how safety precautions will need to be added to cruise ships under new legislation. Cruise lines will be required to install peepholes in cabin doors and raise guard rails on many ships, and add on-deck video surveillance and an emergency sound system on all new ones. This version has been updated to reflect those revisions, and updates from the print edition.
A long way to go to ensure passengers' safety on cruise ships
Sunday, July 18, 2010
Any day now, the president is expected to sign the Cruise Vessel Safety and Security Act, which promises to make cruising safer.
Maybe you don't think of a floating vacation as a dangerous activity -- after all, the last headline-grabbing sinking of a cruise liner was that of the MS Sea Diamond, which ran aground near Santorini, Greece, back in 2007. Two passengers disappeared and were presumed dead in that incident. The cruise industry also contends that it has an outstanding safety record when it comes to onboard crimes such as theft and assaults.
Just one little problem: The federal government doesn't require cruise lines to report these crimes in a meaningful and systematic way, so we have to take them at their word. And some passengers don't.
Laurie Dishman counts herself among them. She alleges that a janitor on a Royal Caribbean cruise raped her in 2006. "I felt humiliated," the marketing director for a winery near Sacramento told a congressional hearing the following year. "I could not believe what had happened." Dishman's riveting testimony exposed the shortcomings of cruise ship security, prompting her representative, Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), to sponsor the new legislation. "It became grossly apparent that current law was not protecting American passengers while at sea," said Mara Lee, a spokeswoman for Matsui.
The Cruise Vessel Safety and Security Act will address that problem by requiring cruise lines to report crimes promptly to the FBI and to post a link on their Web sites to a Transportation Department Web site listing crimes that have occurred on cruise ships. "This will be the first time in the history of the cruise industry when a cruise ship is required to report a crime in international waters," said James Walker, a maritime lawyer based in Miami. "The public can finally see the criminal database and determine which cruise ships have the highest crime rates."
Cruise lines will have to install peepholes in cabin doors and raise guard rails on many ships, and add on-deck video surveillance and an emergency sound system on all new ones. The legislation also mandates better crime-scene response by requiring ships to carry rape kits and anti-retroviral medications and to have a trained forensic sexual assault specialist on board.
"In effect, passengers on cruise ships will start to obtain the same protection they would expect if they were at a resort here in the United States," said Ken Carver, the chairman of the International Cruise Victims Association, which advocates for victims of crimes at sea.
This law is undoubtedly a good start at regulating a business that has skirted many government regulations in the past. But is it enough?
I asked the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) about the measure, and the trade association sent me a surprisingly supportive prepared statement. This regulation, it said, would bring "greater consistency and clarification to many industry practices and existing regulations," which include current requirements to report serious crimes to the FBI.
"The safety and security of our guests and crew is CLIA's number one priority," it added.
When I hear a trade organization that resisted this law nearly every step of the way talking like that, I can't help being a little skeptical. (The cruise industry insists it cooperated.) So I asked Alexander Anolik, a former lawyer for several cruise lines who now practices in San Francisco, whether the Cruise Vessel Safety and Security Act holds water.
"It will make cruising safer," he said. "But it doesn't go far enough."