Record low ferry fatality figure

Workboat World Editorial - February 2017

Our preliminary figure for passenger vessel fatalities in 2016 has come out at an estimated 550 deaths. It comprises 369 known deaths plus an allowance, based on long experience, of an additional 50 per cent for unknown fatalities.

That is the lowest death toll in fifty years according to our Baird Maritime Passenger Vessel Accident database. In reality, it is probably the lowest in history, or at least since passenger carrying vessels first developed some thousands of years ago.

The 2016 figure of 550 fatalities compares with the next best year, 2013, when there were about 900. It compares with an average of around 3,000 fatalities per annum over the past fifty-one years. That is a fantastic achievement.

Whatever, it is a very exciting development and shows what can be achieved when ferry owners, operators and regulators take more care than usual. The death toll was on course for a significantly lower figure until the end of October but a spate of fatal accidents occurred in November and December, which ruined the excellent figure that had been achieved until then. Indeed, until the end of September, there had only been about 160 deaths.

Of course, probably inevitably, the first day of 2017 saw a major accident occur just off Jakarta in Indonesia when a 30-metre wooden ferry, the Zahro Express  was destroyed by fire and, probably, 40 or more people perished. The usual human factors seem to have applied: an overloaded, poorly maintained vessel with insufficient lifesaving gear aboard. This “accident” occurred right under the noses of the Indonesian Coast Guard about two nautical miles off Batavia.

While we can only hope that this is not a sign of things to come, it is ominous nevertheless. As usual, most of the fatal accidents occurred in poor or “poorish” countries. The Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, Uganda, Yemen, Tanzania, Thailand, Greece, and Egypt were the more notable offenders in 2016, having the largest numbers of fatalities.

There were fewer accidents with fewer resulting fatalities in a number of other countries including New Zealand, Italy, France and Peru. There were, as always, collisions, fires, capsizes due to overloading, sinkings in storms or typhoons, a sinking on a dangerous bar and the almost inevitable lifeboat drill “accident”. Without exception, all could be attributed, as usual, to human error. As could hundreds of non-fatal accidents and “near misses”.

Fires don’t just happen, nor do collisions or capsizes of overloaded vessels. Storms, particularly typhoons, are well and clearly predicted these days. They, like dangerous bars, can be easily avoided. All that is required is at least adequate seamanship, proper maintenance, care and awareness. In every case the human factors of greed and stupidity are the real, ultimate, causes of these fatalities.

It is notable that five of the usual worst ten countries for ferry accidents appeared again in leading roles with the accidents with the biggest death tolls occurring in them. To remind you, 80 per cent of the fatalities over the past 51 years have occurred in those ten worst countries. They are: the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Haiti, Egypt, Tanzania, Senegal, and the DR Congo.

While the DR Congo and Haiti are obviously far too poor and corrupt to have any serious potential for short-term safety reform, all the others have definite potential and should be doing much better. The Philippines, Bangladesh and Senegal did notably better in 2016, which is gratifying, but they are still home to far too many accidents that continue to result from the same human related causes.

Without wishing in any way to detract from the impressive (about 50 per cent) reduction in the number of fatalities in 2017 from the previous best effort in 2013, the numbers are clearly still far too high. Given their causes and their concentration in only ten countries, it has to be possible for the death toll to be reduced significantly further.

The global aviation industry has shown the way. Its record over, particularly, the last 30 odd years has been very impressive. It recognised early that human factors were the predominant causes and went about reducing them logically, scientifically, and very systematically on a global basis. Similarly, over the same period, at least in the richer “developed” countries, road traffic accidents have been dramatically reduced.

The techniques developed to bring about those improvements are well known. There is now a whole new profession of human factors consultants that service the aviation, railway, mining, oil and gas and road industries, among others. They are experts at changing mindsets and behaviour.

As far as I know, very few of them are employed or consulted by the maritime, particularly ferry, sector. They should be. They are obviously very effective even in so called poor countries. IMO should be encouraging their use in the ten worst countries for ferry fatalities at least.

Note my use of the word “encouraging”. IMO doesn’t need to “interfere” in the internal affairs of its “sovereign member countries” as it is so loathe to do. All it needs to do is emulate its civil aviation counterpart (ICAO) and encourage the kinds of reforms that have been so effective in that industry.

Neil Baird

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