GAO report: Cruise lines are complying with 2010 safety law

By Tom Stieghorst
Cruise passengers are benefiting, for the most part, from safeguards enacted in a 2010 law, a new government report concludes.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said the industry and its regulators have implemented 11 of 15 provisions contained in the Cruise Vessel Safety and Security Act.

In response, critics of the industry took a glass-half-empty approach, saying the report shows the need for further reforms. CLIA responded that the report is more evidence that cruises are safe.

"We are pleased the GAO concluded that cruise lines are complying with the requirements of the [act] and implementation of the law is progressing as intended," CLIA President Christine Duffy said in a statement.

Although the report said that the Coast Guard and FBI have followed the direction of the law and published data on crimes aboard ships, the GAO questioned the usefulness of the information to consumers.

It said the information lacks context, such as comparative data that enables passengers to make an informed judgment. Crime statistics compiled for U.S. metropolitan areas by the FBI, for example, allow for comparison of crime rates in different cities.

The report also said some of the published data is old because only investigations that have been closed are included in the figures. And it said allegations for which investigations are never opened are not included.

Recognizing these limitations, some cruise lines voluntarily began providing counts last year of all allegations of major crime, regardless of investigation status. So, for example, Royal Caribbean International has received allegations of 27 major crimes in the 12 months ended Sept. 30.

Those figures are broken down by type of crime and whether a crew member or a passenger is alleged to have committed them, and can be accessed through a link on Royal Caribbean's website.

Norwegian Cruise Line and several of Carnival's North American brands also participate in the voluntary arrangement.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), one of several legislators who requested the study from the GAO, said its report "found what I have been saying all along: We must do more to protect passengers on cruise ships."

"While the industry has made some efforts on safety and security, passengers have limited recourse and access to incomplete information about the history of crime on board cruise ships when things go wrong," Rockefeller said.

Another legislator, Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), said the study shows "further efforts are necessary to strengthen crime reporting," while Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) focused on the four provisions that have yet to be implemented by federal agencies.

"It is crucial that we push harder to enact final safety regulations mandated by law," Thompson said.

The GAO said one of the four unimplemented provisions was delayed by a policy review at the Department of Transportation that relates to certification of trainers who provide a course on crime scene preservation to cruise line personnel.

Three other provisions are hung up in rulemaking proceedings at the Coast Guard, which is still sorting out how it wants to proceed on several technologies.

The technologies relate to detection of persons who fall overboard, video surveillance to document crimes on ships and acoustic hailing devices meant "to provide communication capability around the entire vessel when operating in high-risk areas."
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