How Safe Are U.S. Ferries?

Major accidents, like the one in South Korea, are unpredictable — and can be unavoidable.

Buildings on the Manhattan (right) and Jersey City skyline are seen from the Staten Island Ferry in June 2013.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
April 16, 2014, 7:45 a.m.

Al­most 300 people are miss­ing off the coast of South Korea after a ferry there, car­ry­ing mostly school­chil­dren, cap­sized and sank. About 164 people have been pulled from the wreck­age, and the race to find sur­viv­ors is well un­der­way.

No one ever ex­pects a dis­aster, but this one has es­pe­cially stunned people. Pas­sen­gers say they heard a loud thud, which sug­gests the ves­sel col­lided with something, but it’s too early to tell. “This par­tic­u­lar ferry was built in Ja­pan, who make some of the best ships in the world. It wasn’t any­where near full and it was trav­el­ling a well-worn route in reas­on­ably calm seas,” the BBC’s Richard West­cott ex­plains. “The speed with which it flipped over and sank is a ma­jor con­cern.”

So if con­di­tions were near-per­fect for a smooth jour­ney, what happened? And could the same hap­pen in U.S. wa­ters?

The Amer­ic­an ferry in­dustry, which car­ries tens of mil­lions of people each year, has a good safety re­cord. It’s also heav­ily reg­u­lated by the U.S. Coast Guard and state gov­ern­ment­al agen­cies, from ves­sel design and con­struc­tion to re­pair and in­spec­tion. In a typ­ic­al year, private ferry-re­lated deaths are in the single di­gits, ac­cord­ing to the Pas­sen­ger Ves­sel As­so­ci­ation.

Still, some are wor­ried about ferry in­fra­struc­ture. An an­onym­ous cap­tain for the Staten Is­land Ferry re­cently told the New York Post that the eight boats that carry 60 mil­lion people to and from Man­hat­tan are “ill-de­signed, poorly main­tained safety haz­ards.”

“I don’t un­der­stand how the Coast Guard al­lows these boats to go out some­times,” he con­tin­ued. “They really do put people at risk. If this were a private com­pany, the Coast Guard would be all over them.”

In 2010, a ferry­boat car­ry­ing 244 people crashed in­to the St. George Ter­min­al on Staten Is­land after an elec­tric­al mal­func­tion took out its pro­pellers, in­jur­ing 50 pas­sen­gers.

The Coast Guard re­buked the un­named cap­tain’s claims. The Staten Is­land Ferry’s op­er­at­or, New York City’s De­part­ment of Trans­port­a­tion, “has been re­cog­nized as hav­ing an ag­gress­ive, pro-act­ive safety pro­gram,” the agency said. The Coast Guard con­ducts safety in­spec­tions of the ferry four times a year.

The bleak real­ity, however, is that no num­ber of in­spec­tions can ever pre­vent mari­time ac­ci­dents, in South Korea or in the U.S., es­pe­cially when ex­tern­al factors are in­volved. “It doesn’t mat­ter how well built the ship is,” BBC’s West­cott writes, “col­li­sions can sink ves­sels very quickly.”

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