Cruising is fun. But is it safe?


Washington — Protecting the millions of Americans embarking on foreign-flagged cruise ships each year from crimes and accidents has become a high-profile issue for Congress as victims and their advocates push for action.

A Senate commerce subcommittee will look at proposals today for improving passenger and crew safety, including a public registry of crimes committed on board cruise ships, a 10-point safety plan from a victims advocacy group and possibly putting law enforcement officers on cruise ships.

Ken Carver, whose 40-year-old daughter’s disappearance on a 2004 Royal Caribbean cruise to Alaska wasn’t reported to the FBI until five weeks later, is blunt about the need to improve safety.

“There is a problem with this industry,” said Carver, who will testify before the
subcommittee. “The cruise ships have taken the position that they do not investigate crimes and, in effect, almost nobody is being prosecuted or convicted.”

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., chairman of the subcommittee, said the cruise industry, which carried about 10.6 million passengers last year, “has avoided regulation at all costs.”

The House already has approved a bill mandating a crime reporting system for cruise lines as part of a Coast Guard reauthorization bill that is awaiting Senate action. The bill also would require the reports to be publicly available on the Internet and identify the involved cruise lines, which must link to the reports from their Web sites.

“Crimes should be made public so individuals know the risks of going on any vacation,” said Carver, a founder of International Cruise Victims Association.

The victims advocacy group has a 10-point program to increase cruising safety but has gotten little response from the industry, although lawmakers are taking notice.

The group’s plan calls for background checks of crewmembers, putting law enforcement officers — such as U.S. Marshals — on cruise ships, monitoring video surveillance cameras and increasing railing height to make it more difficult for people to fall overboard.

Executives of the $35 billion cruise line industry say cruising is safe and point to low numbers of crimes relative to the number of passengers carried and that they are working to keep it that way. About 10.6 million passengers embarked from U.S. ports last year, according to industry estimates.

The Cruise Lines International Association reports recent safety efforts include expanding video surveillance, training crewmembers on security and sensitivity, using women to help victims of sexual assault and installing peepholes in cabin doors.

“One tragedy is one too many but serious crimes are, in fact, very rare on cruise ships,” said Eric Ruff, a spokesman for the association.

While the industry considers its track record good, solid statistics supporting it are
difficult to come by. The association’s 24 member cruise lines voluntarily reported 207 crimes on their cruise ships from April through August last year. The FBI found that 135 incidents did not fall into the eight categories of serious crimes covered in the reporting system.

But among the others were four cases of missing people and another 41 reports of sexual assault.

Current law requires cruise ships to report all crimes to the U.S. Coast Guard and the FBI when they occur in U.S. territorial waters and some crimes involving U.S. citizens, such as murder, sexual assault and robbery, that occur outside territorial waters.