Leading Article: A lesson in candour from the Swedes

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NO ONE would wish a calamity like the loss of the Estonia and some 900 lives on any nation or group of nations. But the chances of the right lessons being learned are better because the tragedy took place in Scandinavia.

Where causes are concerned, the Swedes have not been entirely free of the human tendency to look for scapegoats: maritime union officials have unconvincingly suggested that, if Swedes rather than lower-paid Estonians had formed the crew, the disaster might have been averted. However, the Swedish authorities themselves have been outstandingly ready to share information, on the telephone and at press conferences in Sweden.

For British media folk, it has been refreshing to deal with officials who work in a culture of openness. Swedish candour has extended to disclosure of several recent near-disasters affecting comparable roll-on roll-off car ferries - revelations that have intensified the national soul-searching which followed the loss of the Estonia.

The Finns leading the on-the- spot investigations have also been models of frankness. The impression given in both countries is of professional people interested not in scoring points but in arriving at the truth and drawing the right conclusions.

There is a further reason why the Nordic location may prove helpful. It was the Scandinavians, Europe's leading vehicle ferry operators, who did most to block the imposition of ro-ro modifications under the aegis of the International Maritime Organisation, after the loss of the Herald of Free Enterprise in 1987 off Zeebrugge.

For all the Swedish cult of safety symbolised by Volvo, they argued that, since management failures precipitated the British disaster, they could see little cause to introduce commercially damaging design changes.

In reality, the Sheen report into Zeebrugge called for urgent research into the design of ro-ro ferries. Some improvements have been introduced in new vessels, but the key question of whether bulkheads should be mandatory, to make vehicle ferries less vulnerable to water penetration, has been ducked. When it is raised at the IMO meeting called for December, the Swedes, Finns and their German allies are likely to be in the vanguard of approval rather than the leading obstructionists.