Are Cruise Ships Safe? Assessing Accident & Disease Risk

Cruise ships are an extremely popular form of travel and entertainment. In 2019, the global cruise industry welcomed aboard more than 29 million passengers

But are cruise ships safe? A look at available statistics suggests that, in general, cruise ships are statistically safe. 

Available statistics show that 448 ‘major’ cruise ship accidents have been reported since 2005.

There is no single governmental organization which investigates and documents accidents on cruise ships in the way that the FAA does with plane crashes. As a result, it is difficult to find authoritative data on the incidence of accidents aboard cruise ships. However, data gathered and compiled by cruisejunkie.com shows 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. The tear allowed seawater to seep into the ship and caused the engines to shut off. The ship eventually listed to the starboard side and began sinking in shallow water on its side. This incident resulted in 32 deaths. 
  • In 2013, the Carnival Triumph engine room caught fire midway through its voyage. This occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. The engine fire caused major damage to the ship, and it began floating without power. The loss of power resulted in unsanitary conditions for everyone aboard, as the function of toilets and showers stopped working. The passengers and crew were finally rescued after 3 days.

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 number of accidents compared to the total number of cruises that set sail each year. Based on available statistics, sinking or similar disaster is unlikely to occur while on a cruise ship. 

Between 2000 and 2019, a reported 623 cruise ship passengers and crew died.

Researchers who studied passenger and crew member deaths aboard cruise ships found that a total of 623 people were reported to have died on cruises that took place between 2000 and 2019. Of the 623 fatalities, 557 were passengers and 66 were crew members. Eighty-seven percent of the deaths occurred while the ship was at sea, while the other thirteen percent occurred while the ship was docked.

The table below shows the top three causes of death:

Cause of Death Total Fatalities (Passenger + Crew Member)
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 atop deck railings contribute to this risk of falling. 

To give 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. 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 way, hitching a ride on a cruise ship is similar to boarding a commercial airplane. Deaths aboard 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. 

The COVID-19 pandemic was a reminder for cruise-goers that diseases pose a particularly high risk on cruise ships.

The spread of disease aboard a cruise ship is not a new phenomenon. The CDC says they treat hundreds of cruise passengers for gastrointestinal diseases each year. In 2019, more than 500 passengers and crew aboard 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 aboard a cruise ship became more evident as thousands of passengers contracted COVID-19 while traveling on cruises in early 2020. Over 700 passengers and crew aboard Diamond Princess 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 travelers 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 onboard to quarantine. 

The spread of disease aboard 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. 

Taking a cruise can be a fun, memorable experience. While it is good to remain cautious aboard any type of commercial transportation, in general, cruise ships are statistically safe. 

* This blog is not meant to dispense legal advice and is not a comprehensive review of the facts, the law, this topic or cases related to the topic. For a full review of our disclaimer and policies, please click here.

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