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How Safe Are Ferries?

By Rachel Medlock

In 2003, a ferry in New York City struck a pier in Staten Island, killing eleven and injuring more than seventy. In 2005, a ferry in British Columbia missed the dock and crashed into small boats in the marina. And more recently, a ferry in the Red Sea sank, claiming the lives of over one thousand passengers. Just a few days previous to that disaster, a ferry in Indonesia sank, killing dozens. All of these tragedies beg the question: how safe are ferries? Ferries are popular with tourists, considering them a scenic break from crowded highways, but should you entrust yourself and your family to a ferry?

Ferries in developed countries are, relatively speaking, safe - in fact, in the US traveling by ferry is far safer than traveling by car. In the US, ferries operate in forty States, and in 2002 ridership exceeded one million in several large US cities (including Seattle, New York City, San Francisco, and Boston). Seattle, which has the largest US ferry system, sees approximately 26 million passengers each year. All the ferries all operate under specific procedures and safety standards laid out by state and federal authorities, some of which have been updated since the 2003 crash in New York.

But ferries in Europe and the US have a new burden to consider, as well: terrorism. Since September 11, all modes of mass transit are coming under intense scrutiny by governmental organizations, and this includes ferries. Often times operating with the same number of staff, ferries are being required to check and re-check both passengers and their vehicles for anything suspicious. These new tasks are controversial in some areas, especially in ferry systems already crowded, where the additional security is seen as a hassle and time-suck. In the past few years, the US Coast Guard has struggled with balancing the demands for both safety and time and staff efficiency. The new anti-terrorism regulations will have the highest impact on large US and European ferry systems.

While the new regulations represent a hassle in developed countries, ferry regulation in developing nations would be a welcome relief. Ferry systems in developing nations suffer continually from problems such as understaffing, severe overcrowding, aging vessels, and a lack of regulatory standards. As a result, it is not unusual to see repeat accidents in the same rivers and ports, with the same ferry operators. The two worst places to catch a ferry are Somalia and Bangladesh, where ferry accidents are routine. In Bangladesh, roughly 1,000 people die in ferry accidents every year. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has begun a ten-year plan to reduce the number of ferry fatalities, but when this will realistically begin to have an effect on the ferry systems of developing nations remains a question.

In summary, if you are considering traveling by ferry as part of your upcoming vacation, you would do well to consider where your travel will be: In the US, Canada, and Europe, you can take comfort on the fact that you are safer in a ferry than you are in a car and even some planes. But if you are traveling in a developing nation, either do your homework carefully, or stay away from the ferry systems altogether.

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