In 2019, the global cruise industry welcomed on board more than 29 mill passengers.
But are cruise ships safe? US injury law firm Penney & Associates examined the available statistics and found that, in general, cruise ships were statistically safe.
There is no single governmental organisation which investigates and documents accidents on cruise ships in the way that the US Federal Aviation Administration does with plane crashes.
As a result, it is difficult to find authoritative data on the incidence of accidents on board cruise ships. However, data gathered and compiled by cruisejunkie.com showed that, since 2005, a total of 448 ‘major’ cruise ships accidents have occurred.
In this context, a major accident includes a cruise ship which sank, ran aground, caught fire, or collided with an object.
Two recent incidents highlight these risks.
• In 2012, the cruise ship ’Costa Concordia’ ran aground and sank off the Italian coast. Shortly after leaving port, the vessel struck a reef. The impact sheared through the ship’s hull, allowing seawater to seep into the ship and caused the engines to shut down. The ship eventually listed to starboard and began sinking in shallow water on its side. This incident resulted in 32 deaths.
• In 2013, ‘Carnival Triumph’s’ engine room caught fire midway through its voyage in the Gulf of Mexico. The engine fire caused major damage to the ship, and it began drifting without power. The loss of power resulted in unsanitary conditions for everyone on board, as the toilets and showers stopped working. The passengers and crew were finally rescued three days later.
While the above examples are just two of the more than 400 major cruise ship accidents in the past 15 years, both give sense as to the scale of a disaster at sea.
But the reality is, 448 major accidents is a small amount compared to the total number of cruises that set sail each year. Based on available statistics, sinking or similar disaster is unlikely to occur, the law firm said.
Researchers who studied passenger and crew deaths on board cruise ships found that 623 people were reported to have died on cruises between 2000 and 2019. Of the fatalities, 557 were passengers and 66 were crew members, while 87% of the deaths occurred while the ship was at sea, and the other 13% occurred while the ship was berthed.
The table below shows the top three causes of death:
Cause of Death Total Fatalities
Cardiac incident 97
Accidental fall overboard 72
Jump overboard 60
Cardiac-related deaths may be the result of underlying health conditions, especially given that the majority of cruise-goers are 50-79 years old. It is very clear that caution must be taken to prevent falls overboard, both by ships and their passengers. Slips, trips, and falls are the most common types of accident for cruise passengers and crew. Both alcohol consumption and passengers climbing on top of deck railings contribute to a risk of falling.
To give an additional perspective, there are 323 cruise ships in the world operated by more than 20 companies. The total passenger capacity of these ships is more than 540,000. Therefore, the total number of passengers and crew fatalities pales in comparison to the number of people who board a cruise ship each year.
In this regard, sailing on a cruise ship is similar to boarding a commercial plane. Deaths on board a cruise ship are rare and the chance of one occurring is small. But the fact remains that accidents resulting in injury or death can and do happen. It is important to be cautious and follow the rules while on a cruise ship, Penney & Associates warned.
The spread of disease on board a cruise ship is not a new phenomenon. The US CDC says they treat hundreds of cruise passengers for gastrointestinal diseases each year. In 2019, more than 500 passengers and crew on board a single cruise ship were infected with gastrointestinal disease. This single outbreak resulted in more infected cruise passengers than the entire 2018 calendar year.
The potential for disease outbreak on board a cruise ship became more evident as thousands of passengers contracted COVID-19 while cruising in early 2020. Over 700 passengers and crew on board ’Diamond Princess’ (pictured) fell ill with coronavirus in February, 2020. Dozens of other cruise ships reported COVID-19 outbreaks around the same time.
The close quarters on cruise ships, as well as people from different geographic regions commingling, facilitate the spread of disease on a cruise. Cruise ships that experienced COVID-19 outbreaks were forced to dock, and passengers and crew forced to stay on board to quarantine.
The spread of disease on board a cruise ship is not a new safety concern, but is now much more obvious. Of course, it is very difficult to predict an outbreak. If you are itching to set sail, follow local health guidelines before you board, follow the ship’s health guidelines, and be sure to wash your hands and take other precautions to help maintain a germ-free environment, the law firm said.
While it is good to remain cautious aboard any type of commercial transportation, in general, cruise ships are statistically safe.