2017 marks more than Canada’s 150th anniversary of confederation. It is an occasion to take stock of a century and a half of progress in global marine safety, founded on the regulatory reforms pursued by Samuel Plimsoll in the 1860s. The carriage of people and goods by sea has enjoyed impressive strides in efficiency and ever reduced costs. The challenges in most areas of commercial shipping now seem incremental, with improvements ever more marginal, identifiable and easily achieved. Surveying the empirical landscape of ferry safety, this also seems to be true. Serious losses of life, ships and trade are apparently becoming rare.
What delivered us to a point of secured safety of life at sea in all types of ferries? What can be done to consolidate and improve on such gains? Asking these two questions — to be answered shortly — is a relative or comparative task. For one thing, the safety of life at sea (and the avoidance of ship-source marine pollution) in the passenger and vehicle (i.e., ro-ro) sectors of the ferry trade has been clearly much more successful in developed countries — those of the so called Global North — over those in the developing world, the Global South. The ongoing losses of life in passenger ferry vessels in the latter countries remind us that gains in safety are hard won, fragile and that the industry as a whole is dependent on national enforcement. Two easy answers in our stock-taking exercise come from this varied landscape, namely, that complacency remains a risk and a comparison across national ferry sectors can offer lessons for local improvement. We are not far removed from the Herald of Free Enterprise (1987), Estonia (1994) and Sewol (2014) disasters in industrial countries with heavily regulated, well financed and capably crewed vessels. The recent experience of tragedies (and more quotidian losses) in the Global South demands study.
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