Cruise Ship Security Law Expected To Pass Next Month

A law tightening security and crime reporting on cruise ships is likely to pass after Congress returns from its August break, and I say bully for that.

I found the balcony railing on the Carnival Spirit high enough.

I found the balcony railing on the Carnival Spirit high enough.

I’m also pleased to report that the bill has been stripped of its only truly stupid provision — one that would have required cruise ships to be retrofitted with railings at least 54 inches high. That requirement has been amended to 42 inches high, a standard that modern cruise ships already meet or exceed.

At 54 inches, I calculate that the railing would be at shoulder height for the average American woman (at 5 foot 4) and upper chest height for the average American man (at 5 foot 9). This would seriously interfere with enjoying the experience of being at sea, and would not prevent anyone determined to climb over the rails from doing that.

The bill will still require cruise lines to put peepholes in cabin doors, increase video surveillance, keep rape kits on board and report crimes to federal authorities.

The cruise industry had initially opposed the bill, but reversed its stand. That was wise. It will only enhance the credibility of an industry that has gotten more than its fair share of bad press lately.

[Added 8/2/2009] It appears I’ve vexed some people with this blog post, and I guess I can understand why the photo seems flippant to people who are concerned about cruise passengers going overboard. So, I’ll elaborate.

I believe that it is unwise to have extremely intoxicated people on a ship with railings that they can climb over. I think the way to address this is not to raise the railings, which wouldn’t be very effective. The way to address this is to deal with cruise line policies about serving alcohol to people who are drunk.

I can’t see any way that raising the balcony railing in the photo above would keep me safer. Despite the fact that I’m tall enough to get my feet on the railing (I’m 5 foot 9), it is still well above my center of gravity when I stand up. I can’t fall over it unless I climb up onto it, something I’m not going to do accidentally.

Many times, I’ve stayed at hotels with balcony railings at this height. Sadly, people do occasionally climb over and even get thrown over balcony railings at hotels or apartments. Sometimes they jump. I’m sorry about that, but I’m still going to enjoy a balcony that I can see over and rest my arms on (or feet, if I feel like it) — at sea or on land.

You can say “if it saves one life” it’s worth the inconvenience or annoyance to thousands or millions of other people, but it’s arguable whether it really would save a single life. In cases where people climb onto or over 42-inch rails, they can presumably climb over 54-inch rails.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that it would save lives, how then could I be against improving safety?

Well, it would improve safety to outlaw motorcycles or hang gliding or to take any of a million other measures. We don’t try to create a perfectly safe world. We all draw the line somewhere between our fun, our convenience, financial considerations and safety, in just about everything we do. OSHA draws the line on railings at 42 inches, and that makes sense to me.

I also believe the cruise lines need to be more accountable for crimes on board, particularly sexual assaults, and I agree with every other provision of the bill.


9 thoughts on “Cruise Ship Security Law Expected To Pass Next Month

  1. Sue DiPiero

    Gee, my son went over one of those 42″ rails when he was seasick and trying not to throw up on the deck. Hey, let’s not prevent that from happening again. Also let’s leave out the DOSHA revision. Why should people who are lost at sea on a maritime vessel be treated the same as those lost at sea in a plane crash??? I guess Americans who fly deserve more protection than those who float.

    1. Jeanne Leblanc Post author

      Ms. DiPiero,

      I am very sorry about what happened to your son. But I think tragedies like his — at sea and on land — would be better prevented by focusing on policies about serving alcohol to intoxicated people. I’ve mentioned that before on this blog. And for the record, I don’t think the Death on the High Seas Act amendment should have been dropped.


  2. Jim Walker


    If I owned a fleet of cruise ships, and over 120 of my guests and employees “disappeared” over the rails since year 2000 (including 15 passengers in the past 6 months), I would do something about it.

    A 42″ rail proposed by the cruise industry hits me below my belly button. Most of my weight is in my upper body. Depending on the pitch, roll and yaw of the cruise ship and the wind conditions, there is a risk of going overboard. This is especially true if the passenger is seasick or nauseous due to alcohol.

    The 54″ rail proposed by Ms. DiPiero prevents this from occuring.

    The typical cruise line response is to attack the deceased passenger and the grieving family members’ safety proposals as “stupid.” This is counter-productive and will result in tragedies in the future.

    Jim Walker

    1. Jeanne Leblanc Post author


      I think the proposal was stupid. I certainly don’t think Ms. DiPiero is, or you. But I certainly disagree with you on this.

      A 54-inch rail might prevent a nauseated, seasick or drunk person from leaning so far over it that he or she could fall overboard. Or it might not. I should think it would still be possible to climb up and vomit over a higher rail, though perhaps less likely.

      But that is not the scenario under which most people are going overboard. Fifteen people did not lean over deck railings and fall from cruise ships in the past six months.

      An examination of the cases at shows 15 people went overboard, one from a ferry and 14 from cruise ships. Of the 14, four survived. Of the 10 fatalities, two were crew — one who was working on the hull and one who climbed up onto the railings for a photograph. So we have 10 fatalities, including eight passengers, in the past six months.

      Not good. I absolutely agree. But of those eight passengers, it appears that suicide is proven or probable in six. That is, they jumped. Of the remaining two, it’s not clear what happened. There’s no evidence to show that it was a case of either person leaning out over the rail. It’s possible, but we don’t know.

      Now, we do have two cases of people who definitely climbed on the railings and fell — a crew member who died and a passenger who was rescued. It appears these were truly accidents, but both people were taking a deliberate and foolish risk. Should we raise the railings to try to prevent that?

      With all respect to Ms. DiPietro and your experience, I don’t think so. I DO believe the cruise lines should be more careful about serving alcohol to extremely intoxicated passengers, and should be held liable if they’re not. I believe their muster drills should include more strenuous warnings about climbing on the railings and that security should keep a closer eye on passengers on deck.


  3. kate

    I’ve been on many cruise ships and I’ve leaned on many railings but I’ve never felt as though I could possibly fall off, even when the boat is rocking and it’s fiercely windy.

    Perhaps people should take responsibility for their own behavior. “But officer, I was really REALLY drunk” usually isn’t an acceptable excuse- and it shouldn’t be in this situation either.

  4. CruiseMates

    The ICV organization started out with 10 proposed changes they wanted Congress to force onto the cruise industry. They included a few outrageous ideas like establishing an international police force to put on ships (what about Darfur, or the Gulf of Aden?), put US marshalls on all ships, mandate all passengers to wear tracking devices and follow their whereabouts 24-hours/day, and verifying the weather in advance before a tour is purchased(?).

    Congress decided to enact the ones that were feasible: peepholes, latches and reporting of reports of crime. I don’t agree with the last one which only legitimizing hearsay in my opinion.

    But the truth is the ICV has already said “we’re not done.” They really want the DOHSA changed, an international treaty the USA agreed to, for the ability to hit the deep pockets of the cruise lines.

    Here’s the result: every future cruise ship suicide will now would be called a “missing person” by trial lawyers. Lawsuits will go on endlessly seeking to paint the cruise line as responsible every time (prove it wasn’t a crime, cruise line!) and the cash settlements will have no limits. They will strive for lifetime support for every member of the suicide victim’s family.

    Just looking at the Twitter feeds from some of the admiralty lawyers will sicken you. They try to turn every suicide into an “unsolved murder.” Can you imagine what that does to the families of these victims? They actually contact some of them in person to tell them their loved one was probably a victim of foul play. They have the family living with the fear and uncertainty their lost one suffered a violent death just so they can pursue a lawsuit and hopefully get the deep pockets to pay.

    I don’t know about you – but my idea of honoring my lost loved ones’ memory is to consider what they would have wanted me to do in their name. I wonder what the lost ones would say about the actions of their families trying to shift responsibility for their deaths to the cruise ship they happened to pick for their last cruise.

  5. CruiseMates

    Jeanne, I agree with your statements, and I really admire your research into this topic. Here is another area to research: how many of these overboards involved people who had sneaked alcohol onboard or were getting it some other way against cruise line rules (such as having other people buy it for them after they were cut off).

    The truth is that happens a lot. George Allen Smith sneaked absinthe aboard his ship about two days before he went overboard. That toxic drink was illegal in the US (it may still be I am not sure) because it has hallucinogenic properties. During his visit to Livorno a few days before he disappeared he was so hungover he literally went blind for a few hours. Blind drunk.

    The truth is, people who are drunk might see a railing and decide to try to sit on it. Sober people would see the danger in that. There was chair propped up against his balcony railing – and blood on a ledge outside his cabin where he fell. There is even a handprint that looks like he may have tried to hold on for a second from where he landed. This supports the idea that he was alive when he went over, but no one heard a struggle before the final “thud.” The last sound before that was reportedly a drawer banging shut (grabbing a cigar, maybe?).

    Does it seem likely at all that George Allen Smith was put over a railing alive, and the neighbor who had been reporting hearing noises all night – and even reported the noises that apparently accompanied the overboard, wouldn’t hear a struggle if someone was trying to push George over a railing? No. Every indication is that he tried to sit on the railing and lost his balance.

  6. Jim Walker


    Your poster above is confused about the Death on the High Seas Act, called “DOHSA.”

    DOHSA is not an “international treaty.” It is a federal law enacted by Congress in 1920 to provide for limited recovery when seamen died at sea. Our U.S. Congress passed DOHSA so the seaman’s widows would not become destitute when their husbands die in international waters.

    DOHSA is an archaic and out-dated law. applied to cruise lines, the law provides very minimal recovery and, in many situations, no recovery at all.

    Under DOHSA, surviving family members may potentially recover only “pecuniary” (financial) damages upon a showing of negligence by the cruise line. There is no recovery for the decedent’s pre-death pain and suffering, or the grief and bereavement experienced by the surviving family members, or the loss of love and guidance suffered by the children. Only strictly financial losses such as lost wages or burial/funeral expenses are potentially recoverable.

    The practical effect of this is that there is no basis for any recovery if the missing passenger is a retiree or a child (who is not earning wages). If the body of a retired passenger is not recovered, and there are no burial expenses, the family receives nothing.

    The cruise lines and their insurance underwriters love DOHSA. Even if the cruise line is clearly negligent or, for that matter, the cruise line acts intentionally (a crew member throws a passenger overboard) DOHSA provides no recovery when the victim is a retiree or a child.

    DOHSA used to be applied to aviation disasters when airplanes crashed in international waters. The families of lost children or elderly (retired) parents were excluded from any recovery by virtue at DOHSA. But following the crash of a jet in the Atlantic full of US citizens from an airport in New York, the American public became outraged by this injustice. In response, Congress excluded air travel from DOHSA.

    The International Cruise Victims organization (“ICV”) has been trying to amend DOHSA to permit the recovery of fair compensation when passengers die during cruises. The proposed cruise safety bill contained a provision to amend DOHSA so that there is no difference if an American citizen dies ashore or in the sea. The cruise industry spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress to eiminate the amendment. Ultimately, the cruise lines’ big bucks and PR machine won out. As far as deaths on ships go, DOHSA is just the way it existed in 1920 – 89 years ago.

    Another problem with DOHSA is that it permits the cruise ships to act irresponsibly without accountability. If there is no legal or financial consequence to the cruise line for their negligence, then there is no incentive to make improvements to their ships and their alcohol and security procedures to protect the passengers.

    This is why the cruise industry does not even bother to track disappearances, determine the cause of the incidents, and then institute appropriate corrective measures. The cruise industry’s only concern is the issue of bad publicity and the potential that the public will chose a safer place to vacation. This is why the cruise industry is quick to blame the passengers and to use the “passenger suicide” excuse.

    Just earlier this week, the PR department at Holland American Line quickly blamed the missing passenger for committing “suicide,” even before the Alaskan State Troopers boarded the cruise ship to begin their investigation.

    Jim Walker

  7. Sue DiPiero

    Amazing the minute someone says overboard the word drunk comes up. Unfortunately for families like ours there is a press release immediately from the cruise lines saying how much alcohol was bought, smuggled, etc. But when there is evidence to the contrary in the end, there is no press release retracting what they have already lead the world to believe. I’m sorry that you all are so swayed by the media. I have seen what it has done to several families and in the end all we get is a verbal sorry from some insignificant employee. All I have to say is if you cruise never be alone for a single minute. That’s all it takes.


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