The Great Debate

Tuesday, November 02, 1999
Despite tremendous strides being made on the marine electronics and technology fronts, ships continue to collide at what many deem an unacceptable rate. The recent rash of high-profile casualties, particularly the ones involving fully loaded cruise ships, has caught the eyes of national and international legislators and is sure to result in action. Despite the best efforts of electronic makers and quality ship owners who outfit their vessels with the latest products and systems to ensure safety of passengers, crew, cargo and ship, vessels are running into one another at an alarming rate. One of the more visible examples of this (although the official cause of the mishap is yet to be stated) was when a Norwegian Cruise Line cruise ship Norwegian Dream and the containership Ever Decent collided in the English Channel. Although the ships hit in the middle of the night, it was reported that winds were light and visibility was good. Vessels today, although they are years behind technologies adopted by other modes of transportation, are better able to "see" and communicate with one another - no matter the weather condition. While "the human factor" and insufficient training can and have been pointed to in many instances, the responsibility falls onto the vessel owners and operators to ensure that their ships are continually updated, and that the crews are trained, with the best products and systems available. Providing the Nudge Owners who regularly maintain and update vessel and equipment, and crew vessels with well-trained seamen are generally dubbed "good" or "quality owners. But it is good money to bet that most owners begrudgingly spend extra dollars on ancillary equipment and systems, particularly in today's low freight rate environment. Enter legislators and rule-making bodies. The maritime industry has traditionally been one that reacts to major disasters with new rules and regulations, rather than one that is proactive in assessing potential dangers and reacting new mandates. "We cannot let events unfold and then respond to ensuing disasters. We have to prevent them from happening in the first place. New technology will help in this process," said The International Maritime Organization Secretary General William O'Neil in a speech commemorating World Maritime Day. He also said that ships will undoubtedly become more complex. "They will be fitted with more powerful computers and the links to shore by satellite communication systems will become increasingly sophisticated. Their navigation will become more dependent on electronic innovations such as the global positioning system, which will be combined with electronic charts and automatic alerting mechanisms. "At another conference in mid-October, Mr. O'Neil seemingly ruffled some industry feathers with the proposal of a system of mandatory traffic control compliance by ship masters with orders from shore traffic controllers. The suggestion understandably launched a colorful debate at a conference on navigational safety in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. "Under existing regulations, the VTIS (Vessel Traffic Information Systems) has the right to contact the ship concerned and warn of the danger ahead. But the shore authorities have no authority to compel a change of course," Mr. O'Neil reportedly said. "We should ask ourselves if the time has not come to question this approach and to empower the shore authorities, in certain cases, to order ships to take whatever action is necessary to avoid an accident. "In discussing the program, he compared the proposed system to that of the relationship between airline pilot and air traffic controller. "There is no doubt that positive traffic control is essential in civil aviation. The principle of control has been accepted in all other modes of transport and there is no reason for not extending it to shipping, when safety would be enhanced. "While the suggestion is obviously a far way from serious debate, let alone implementation, the weight of having Mr. O'Neil broach the topic at a major industry event is not lost. The comments prompted a debate on liability if the captain followed orders from shore. Participants also discussed requiring ships to be fitted with a transponder, or electronic automatic identification system with satellite communication ability that transmits the ship's name, position, speed and course. Interestingly, it was at an international meeting just two weeks prior that shipowners maintained they were systematically being choked by legislation. Shipowners said the maritime industry is being choked by legislation and that they are unfairly targeted as the culprits for all ills in the sector. Comments came from a group of shipowners who were addressing approximately 1,000 delegates from 35 countries who attended the bi-annual Maritime Cyprus Conference in the port town of Limassol.

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