Leading Article: The sea must be governed

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ACCIDENTS will happen; the question is the extent to which we are prepared to stack the odds against them. The appalling disaster of the Estonia, with some 900 fatalities, will lead to the usual claims and counter-claims. Shipowners will try to blame human error or bad weather or even (as one did last week in an audacious assault on the laws of statistics) an encounter with an old Second World War mine. Victims' relatives will point to design faults or inadequate emergency procedures or poor safety checks. It may be many months before anybody establishes a definite cause. But whatever the outcome of the arguments, the truth is that we have an extraordinarily relaxed attitude to safety at sea.

Statistically, flying is by far the safest form of transport. This is not just chance. If any passenger jet were suspected of the inherent design faults that have been attributed to roll-on roll-off ferries, it would have been grounded by now. The faults would be put right, almost regardless of cost, and no matter how slight the risk. Air travel is suffused with safety awareness, as demonstrated by the emergency instructions given at the beginning of every flight. This is partly a matter of human psychology. Flight seems so inherently improbable, so outrageous a defiance of observable physical laws - it is doubtful that more than a dozen passengers on the average jumbo jet could offer a coherent account of why it stays in the air - that we demand the maximum assurances that nothing is left to chance. People tolerate delays and pay higher fares as a result. But it is also a matter of the industry's history. Almost from the beginning, passenger air travel has been closely regulated and many of the biggest companies have been state- owned. Sea travel, in contrast, has a far longer and more anarchic history, with private enterprise in the lead.

Shipowners have always resisted regulation, always pleaded intolerable cost, always warned of ruined business. In the 19th century, they campaigned fiercely against the introduction of the Plimsoll line, limiting the depth at which ships could be loaded. They resisted again when safety regulations were proposed after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 - and, as we report elsewhere, the regulations were later relaxed to assist the development of ro- ro ferries. The owners dragged their feet on new international safety standards which were proposed after the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster in 1987 and are now being phased in. These are modest standards, which reduce the chances of water entering the vehicle decks, but do little to prevent the catastrophic consequences if it does. The point is not so much that the ship will capsize but the suddenness and speed with which it will do so. The Estonia went down in five minutes; it is not possible to evacuate a ship of such size (even if the procedures are perfect and well- rehearsed, which they rarely are) in less than 45 minutes. This is why it is absurd for Jim Davis, the chairman of the international shipowners' organisation, to state that 'these ships are inherently safe until something totally unexpected happens'. The unexpected will happen at sea - though a storm in the Baltic hardly seems to fit this description - and safety consists in then being able to rescue passengers. Mr Davis's argument that there have been 'very few accidents' is equally bogus. Ro-ro ferries have been capsizing since the early 1950s, when there were only a few dozen in the world. Only last year, another Baltic ferry capsized with the loss of 51 lives. As we report on page 1, the Department of Transport's own assessment, based on actuarial calculations by Lloyd's Register, is that a British ro-ro ferry will capsize on average once every five years.

The answer, as almost every naval architect now accepts, is to divide the vehicle decks into sections, with watertight bulkheads, and so limit the damage that can be done when water enters. The owners object, not only to the cost of installing them but also the extra cost of loading the re-designed ferries. The argument is that longer loading time will lead to higher fares and increased journey times. The ferries will thus become uncompetitive.

It is more likely that companies would find alternative savings. But if they became less profitable and some went out of business, so be it. The duty of governments is to protect their citizens against unreasonable risks, and to bear in mind the huge public cost (in rescue and medical services, for example) of maritime disasters, not to pore over the balance sheets of private companies. The huge risks of ro-ro ferries are almost beyond doubt; the international authorities should act now to reduce them.