How often does human error play a part in maritime accidents?

| Feb 25, 2020 | Maritime Law |

Millions of people take their vacations aboard cruise ships every year. Hundreds of thousands work aboard container ships and other large vessels. Few worry that their ships may suddenly crash or sink.

But the seas can be dangerous and unpredictable. Despite all the advances in maritime safety, accidents still happen. Ships sink. They’re grounded. And they collide. The recent collision of two cruise ships off the coast of Mexico served as a brutal reminder. Thankfully, no one was seriously injured. But with all the tools at our disposal, why should ships collide? How often are the captains or crews to blame?

Common causes for shipping accidents

To many people, the fates of those who work aboard merchant vessels are completely invisible. Although container ships move a tremendous share of the world’s goods, their crews hail from poorer countries. Western audiences rarely give them much thought. That’s part of the reason we hear more about the collisions between cruise ships than the shipping accidents that claim nearly 2,000 lives every year.

However, the Guardian pierced the veil a few years back. When its reporters explored the risks of maritime labor, they found that commercial pressures often put crews at risk. These pressures led to:

  • Massive ships piloted by skeleton crews as small as 13
  • An overreliance on technology and automation
  • Dangerous levels of fatigue among crew members

The result, the Guardian claimed, was that roughly 60% of all shipping accidents stemmed from human error. Or, as they put it, ships sailed by “computer-savvy officers who fail to look out the window at the crucial moment.”

How do these behaviors translate into accidents? According to the business data people at Statista, of the 46 ships lost in 2018:

  • 30 sank
  • 9 were grounded
  • 4 were lost to fires or explosions
  • 1 each were lost due to machinery failures, collision and hull damage likely resulting from poor maintenance

These numbers matter because they’re not just statistics. They’re about people who have lives, dreams and family. Most of these accidents may feel far away. It may take news of a cruise ship collision to make the dangers of the sea feel a little closer, but it’s important to remember the responsibilities that ship owners and captains have to their crew, as well as to the families of those lost at sea.

Where does the responsibility ultimately reside?

Human error accounts for 60% of all shipping accidents, but who’s responsible for those mistakes? Do they live solely with the captain and crew? Or are the owners responsible, too? It often takes skill and experience to identify all the factors involved in maritime accidents.