It’s 2020. The world is connected by smartphones that bounce data to space and back every second of every day. Computers talk to us. We have airplanes, drones and self-driving cars. So, you might not expect to hear about fatal crashes involving boats.

Ships have been around for nearly so long as humanity can remember. That’s a long time to improve their safety records. But for all the advances we’ve made, there are still hundreds of fatal accidents like the recent collision between two towboats on the Mississippi River. Why should this be?

Meeting the standards

The fact is that maritime industry is heavily regulated. There are regulations that govern shipping companies, their captains, crew and even their ships. But that doesn’t mean everyone follows the rules as well as they should.

In one respect, it’s understandable that someone might find it daunting to keep up with every one of the U.S. Coast Guard rules for towing vessels. But the counterargument is that a single mistake can have devastating consequences. There aren’t as many deaths on the waters as on the highways, but the Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports there are roughly 700 fatalities every year. The friends and family of those lost would argue that’s 700 too many.

In addition to their pain and suffering, those friends and family face unique challenges in recovering from their losses. The state laws that apply to auto crashes don’t always apply to ships. Commercial vessels—and even some recreational ships—are most often subject to maritime law. Fewer lawyers properly understand all the applicable laws or know where to look for fault.

For example, any number of factors could have contributed to the recent towboat crash, including:

  • Improper hiring
  • Crew members who worked too many hours
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Improper training or permitting
  • Faulty safety equipment such as radars, searchlights, compasses or GPS devices
  • Poor maintenance

It’s possible that a collision may be a purely unforeseen and unpreventable accident. But it’s far more likely that someone shortcut a step. Most accidents can be prevented, and the family and friends of those who suffer deserve to see justice.

A long way to go

For those who work aboard commercial vessels, the good news is that there are far fewer accidents on the waters than on four wheels. The bad news is that shipping remains a dangerous industry. There are rules and regulations for a reason, and every seaman and longshore worker deserves to know their employer is following the rules to keep them safe.

Someday we may see a day without shipping accidents. But for now, we still have a long way to go. The Mississippi is clearly wide enough for two towboats to pass each other without colliding.