Titanic to Costa Concordia, has safety at sea improved?
Published Sunday, April 15, 2012 7:14PM EDT
When the Titanic struck an iceberg and sunk on April 15, 1912, it set into motion a chain of events that would forever change the shipping industry through the introduction of new rules and regulations intended to prevent such a disaster from ever happening again.
But 100 years after Titanic slipped beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, claiming the lives of more than 1,500 people, many of the risks remain very much the same.
Human error in the form of a momentary lapse of judgment or a misread map can still spell the demise of a ship. And we still tend to believe that technology can trump nature – to our own peril, said James Delgado, a shipwreck hunter, historian and director of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Heritage Program.
"I think the key message of Titanic is that whenever we get complacent, whenever we think we have the technology that can deal with something, whenever we think we're practically untouchable, we get reminded that we're not," Delgado told CTVNews.ca.
Those reminders of the ocean's power and our own frailty are often grim, such as the sinking of the Costa Concordia after it ran aground off the Tuscan coast in January, killing 32 people.
Less deadly but closer to home, two people are still missing and presumed dead after BC Ferries' MV Queen of the North veered off course and hit a reef off B.C.'s coast in 2006.
And while there were no fatalities, the cruise ship MV Explorer struck an iceberg in 2007 and sank in the Antarctic Ocean, in a stunning reminder of how easily a Titanic-like disaster could occur in frigid, hostile waters where cruise ships now make regular voyages.
Add to that a host of shipping tragedies in the developing world that have received less news coverage but claimed thousands of lives, and the reality quickly becomes clear -- no matter how advanced ships and their crews become, technology can still fail and the men and women who operate them still make mistakes that can have terrible consequences.
There is little doubt, however, that it was the sinking of the mighty Titanic -- at the time the largest, most expensive steamer ever built -- that shocked the shipping world into creating new safety regulations and procedures that revolutionized the industry and made the seas much safer.
Helen Sampson, a professor at Cardiff University in Wales, and the director of the Seafarers International Research Centre, said the Titanic disaster served as a catalyst for massive changes, most of which remain in place a century later.
In the wake of the Titanic disaster, she said, governments from around the world held the first-ever International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), which ushered in major changes and is widely viewed as the most important treaty governing the industry.
The first version of the treaty was adopted in 1914, two years after the Titanic went down.
It set into place rules that required life rafts for all passengers, 24-hour monitoring of wireless radio, and triggered the formation of the International Ice Patrol -- an organization that still tracks icebergs and issues shipping alerts to this day.
SOLAS also issued regulations on everything from emergency drills to the number of life jackets required on board a ship, to the requirement for fully watertight bulkheads in ship construction.
Even the colour of distress flares was standardized. Before the Titanic sunk, each country, and sometimes even each ship, chose its own colour for signalling that it was in trouble, and other ships often misread them.
Those shifts, which were all products of SOLAS, ushered into place a literal sea change in the maritime industry, Delgado said.
"Governments stepped forward and said ‘let's look into this and let's make some changes.' And the changes that happened were important ones," he said.
According to a recent report by maritime insurer Allianz, based on data collected by the Seafarers International Research Centre, the changes have saved many lives.
In 1912, the report says, an average of one out of every 100 ships was lost at sea each year. By 2009, the rate was one ship lost for every 670.
And marine travel is now safer than rail, air, and bus travel, according to the study.
"Most losses can be attributed to ‘human error' -- a broad category estimated to be responsible for between 75 per cent to 96 per cent of marine casualties. Pressures of competition and fatigue are frequently cited as significant causes," stated the report called Safety and Shipping 1912-2012.
Historically, Sampson said, major changes in the shipping industry have followed major losses of life. That shouldn't be the case, she said.
"I think one of the unfortunate things about international regulations is it often will take a shipping disaster to capture the imagination of the public first and foremost, and then to galvanize politicians and nations to really do something about issues that have been known about for a very long time," she told CTVNews.ca from Cardiff University in Wales.
However, Sampson acknowledged that a less compelling disaster may not have had the resounding impact that Titanic did.
"It was just such a ship and so much pride was taken in it and so much coverage was given to it -- and I suppose that just strengthened the safety message that came out of it," she said.
Delgado agreed that the tragedy fascinated the world, inspiring movies, books, documentaries and the decades-long search for the wreck itself.
Part of that obsession, he said, was due to the fact the story was relayed by wireless across the Atlantic as it developed, and for the first time an international news event played out in the media almost in real time.
Quite simply, he said, people were both intrigued and horrified by the event.
"You have this steamship built at the epitome of the age. It's big, powerful, fast, has modern conveniences galore, it has a highly trained crew and is on its maiden voyage and it has all sorts of people on board including some very rich and very powerful people. And within a few hours, it's gone," Delgado said.
But the sinking of the Titanic didn't endanger the future of the shipping or cruise line industries a century later, as proven by their vibrancy now.
Still, like the sinking of the Costa Concordia, the Queen of the North and the MV Explorer, Titanic served as a stark reminder that neither technology, not humans, are infallible, Delgado said.
"What the Titanic did do was remind folks that the practically unsinkable was indeed sinkable and that the unthinkable could happen," he said.
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