EDITORIAL | Fatal ferry accidents – Some improvers, some backsliders

Sewol in Mokpo New Port. Photo: Wikipedia / Trainholic

Since I compiled my major study of fatal ferry accidents covering the period 1966 to 2015, there have been some significant changes in the order of the most dangerous countries for ferry travel. There has been a major re-ordering of the five worst countries as shown clearly by the data contained in the Baird Maritime Passenger Vessel Accident database.

Some very good news…

The best news is that the Philippines, which had been the worst offender over the fifty years of my study now only ranks at Number 8. Similarly, Bangladesh, which was second worst for fifty years, is now seventh.

China, too, has improved dramatically from fourth position to eleventh. Indeed, over the past three years, China has not recorded a single serious ferry accident. Neither did Bangladesh in 2019.

…and some bad news

Sadly, DR Congo has declined from sixth to first (i.e. worst) place. It is closely followed by Indonesia, which has slid back from third to second place.

Of course, the data for all this “positioning” has been difficult to obtain, especially from developing countries. It is, though, the best available as the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), which could do it, makes no effort to record the domestic ferry accidents that now produce at least 98 per cent of ferry fatalities.

Since 2000, the availability of data has improved dramatically with the advent of the Internet. It is now much less likely that accidents in the “back blocks” of developing countries will be overlooked.

Real global toll has reduced

With an average annual “recorded” death toll of 1,175 from 1966 to 2015, I estimate that we probably recorded less than half of the real toll over that half century.

Given the dramatic reduction in the number of fatalities in developed countries, thanks to the efforts of IMO, various national governments and the ferry industry, since about 1995, it is incomprehensible that the average for the four years 2016 to 2019 remains almost the same at 1,080. The “Internet effect” obviously has a lot to do with that.

My estimate is that the actual total death toll has probably reduced from at least 2,000 per annum to about 1,500. There are still numerous “back blocks” accidents that we don’t hear of for years, if ever. That is most unfortunate.

Nevertheless, despite that important improvement, the world is still experiencing ferry accidents that kill significant numbers of innocent people every year. Far more than are killed in comparable aviation accidents. Now, thanks to the dramatic improvements to ferry safety implemented in developed countries, nearly all fatalities occur in developing countries. Also, for the same reason, the percentage of accidents occurring on domestic voyages has risen from about 92 per cent to at least 98 per cent.

Developing countries can do it

Obviously, if developed countries can reduce their numbers of ferry fatalities to practically zero, so too should developing countries be able to reduce their tolls, at least somewhat.

Notably, some have, very effectively. The shining examples are China, the Philippines and Bangladesh, each of which has made dramatic improvements in ferry safety over the past five years. While China, arguably, is no longer a developing country, the other two plainly are.

They thus contrast starkly with Indonesia, Myanmar, Nigeria, India, Tanzania, Malaysia and, worst by far, the so-called Democratic Republic of Congo. The “Internet effect” has obviously emphasised the bad records of those countries because we knew little about them prior to 2000. However, since the, the internet has now become pretty much universal, so its effect is now negligible.

Government WILL is the key

Why, then, have China, the Philippines and Bangladesh improved so significantly while the others, even allowing for data deficiencies, have got so much worse? I firmly believe that the governments of those three countries have developed the will to do something about their ferry safety problems. Of course, they first had to understand and accept that they did have problems.

That has led, inevitably, to sensible analysis of the reasons for their problems that have resulted in, similarly sensible, responses. Those responses aren’t, as they say, rocket science. Apart from small refinements to suit local conditions, they have simply had to implement the policies that have been in force in most developed countries for a quarter of a century.

Having, as part of Interferry’s Domestic Ferry Safety committee, participated in its Lloyd’s Register Foundation-supported FerrySafe programme, I have closely studied the phenomenal improvements achieved in the Philippines of late. My Interferry colleagues and I have also noticed the similarly dramatic improvements made in China and Bangladesh.

Strong, effective support from China

Impressively, China, through its China Maritime Safety Administration, has become so inspired by its own success that it is now very effectively evangelising the message of ferry safety to its ASEAN neighbours. It has even persuaded IMO to start taking domestic ferry safety seriously. That was a difficult task.

While the actual regulatory and enforcement changes implemented in those three countries are relatively obvious and simple, it is the fact that their governments have developed the will to implement them that has ensured their effectiveness.

Indonesia is in denial

Tragically, the senior bureaucrats and ministers responsible for ferry safety in Indonesia seem to be in denial as to the extent of their problem. Fortunately, though, some of their more junior colleagues are aware of it but their hierarchy precludes rapid reform.

The DR Congo is probably the ultimate “failed state”, so, it seems largely unaware that it has a problem at all. There is probably little chance of reform there in the short term. Encouragingly, though, from talking with maritime safety officials in the Pacific Forum nations, Myanmar and ASEAN, ex-Indonesia, there is a growing awareness of both ferry safety problems and the fact that they can be simply and relatively inexpensively overcome.

Almost complete ferry safety can be achieved

Almost complete ferry safety can be achieved. While, obviously, fewer people travel by air, the aviation industry achieved zero fatalities in 2017. Ferries, operating only in two dimensions, are inherently safer than aircraft. which operate in three. After all, if a ferry engine fails, it can be towed home. You can’t usually do that with an aircraft.

At least 98 per cent of ferry accidents are caused, ultimately, by human error. Those errors, as has happened in aviation, can largely be eliminated. They can be eliminated through effective regulation and enforcement supported by training and education.

Thanks to the development of the necessary governmental will, China, the Philippines and Bangladesh have improved their ferry safety records dramatically. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.


Neil Baird

Co-founder and former Editor-in-Chief of Baird Maritime and Work Boat World magazine, Neil has travelled the length and breadth of this planet in over 40 years in the business. He knows the global work boat industry better than anyone.