Judging the safety of cruise ships is essential for anyone concerned about their safety and friends and family while sailing on the high seas.
By most accounts, cruise ships are safe. No major accidents have occurred aboard American-bound cruise ships in recent history. Cruise ships are extensively monitored for security and safety risks. Crime rates aboard cruise ships are far lower than those in the safest American cities, and help is never far away.
Still, there are always risks anywhere, including on cruise ships.
Cruise Ship Accidents Are Rare
“Abandon ship!” Rarely you will ever hear that call on a cruise ship. While accidents involving commercial maritime passengers and vessels are rare when they happen, it is usually aboard ferries. But like airplane crashes, they always make the news. The saying goes that the most dangerous part of flying is your drive to the airport, which goes double for cruise ships. A lot has changed since the Titanic sailed in 1912.
Looking only at cruise ships, there have only been three serious incidents over the past 20 years, and none of those involved cruises with an itinerary that included a U.S. port:
- Eastern Star (2015) – Chinese river cruise ship that capsized during a storm on the Yangtze River, killing 442
- Costa Concordia (2012) – an Italian cruise ship that was declared a total loss after it ran aground, killing 32
- Bulgaria (2011) – Russian river cruise ship that sank in a storm on the Volga River, killing 122
Can a Rogue Wave Capsize a Cruise Ship?
Bulgaria and Eastern Star were relatively small cruise ships with a total of 201 and 454 people on board, respectively, at the time storms struck them.
The Costa Concordia had a capacity of 3,780 passengers and was lost because of human error. By most accounts, the captain was showing off and sailed the ship too close to shore, where it struck a rock. The captain maintains his managers at Costa Cruises told him to sail close to the beach so people on the ship could wave to the people on land.
The fact that significant cruise ships making calls in ports throughout the United States host more than 10 million Americans annually and have not been lost or sunk in at least the past 20 years should be reassuring.
Help and Big Brother Are Never Far Away
In some ways, being on a cruise ship is safer than being in your own house. As a matter of strict policy, cruise ships do not allow guns, knives, or other weapons aboard. Food and water are tested continuously and inspected. Emergency medical help is minutes away, and someone is always within shouting distance. It’s a different story if you need emergency surgery, in which case you will probably be air rescued and still might reach the hospital sooner than if you lived in a rural part of your state.
Criminals could not pick a worse place to commit a crime than on a cruise ship. Cruise companies want to deter crimes from being committed on board, and they have found CCTV systems are one of the best ways of doing so; almost every square inch of public space is under blanket video surveillance. Video surveillance can help with liability issues, too, not to mention that it is also required by law.
In 2010 when Congress passed the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act, it required major cruise ships with American and foreign ports of call to maintain video surveillance systems to document crimes and establish evidence for criminal prosecutions. When the police are far away, passengers seem more than willing to trade public video surveillance for an added security sense.
Crime Rates: Cruise Ships VS Cities
In terms of safety regarding crimes aboard cruise ships, one way to understand how safe or unsafe cruise ships are is to make a comparison.
According to Forbes, in 2018, Business Insider ranked Naperville, Illinois as the safest city in America, while Detroit ranked as the most dangerous city in America that year.
We can compare the rate of specific crimes in those cities with similar crimes on cruise ships. All cruise ships docking in the U.S. with foreign itineraries must report serious crimes to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Total Alleged Crimes:
- Aggravated assault – 43
- Sexual assault and rape – 15
- Murder/manslaughter/homicide – 0
- Aggravated assault – 2,941
- Sexual assault and rape – 579
- Murder/manslaughter/homicide – 303
- Aggravated assault – 14
- Sexual assault and rape – 62
- Murder/manslaughter/homicide – 0
Taking the population of these cities and the number of Americans who took a cruise into account, we can calculate the chance you have of being a victim of one of these crimes depending on the location:
Chance of Being a Victim
- Aggravated assault – 0.03%
- Sexual assault and rape – 0.01%
- Murder/manslaughter/homicide – 0%
- Chance of being a victim of any crime – 0.04%
- Aggravated assault – 0.44%
- Sexual assault and rape – 0.09%
- Murder/manslaughter/homicide – 0.05%
- Chance of being a victim of any crime – 0.57%
- Aggravated assault – 0.0001%
- Sexual assault and rape – 0.0005%
- Murder/manslaughter/homicide – 0%
- Chance of being a victim of any crime – 0.0007%
So with this comparison, we can see that about six people out of every 1,000 in Detroit are victims of one of these crimes, four people out of every 10,000 in Naperville are victims, and seven people out of every million are victims on cruise ships.
From this comparison, cruise ships are orders of magnitude safer than the safest city in America.
We sourced our city crime statistics for Naperville and Detroit from the FBI, our cruise ship statistics from the US DOT, and the total number of American cruise passengers all from the most recent year full statistics were available: 2016.
Cruise Ships and Sexual Assaults
Perhaps the single-largest impetus for Congress to pass the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010 were reports of sexual assaults on cruise ships. The language of that act specifically notes, “Over the last five years, sexual assault and physical assaults on cruise vessels were the leading crimes investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation with regard to cruise vessel incidents.”
Free-flowing alcohol, a sense of excitement, and bustling public venues with random people, can be the perfect storm for sexual assault. That is especially the case for teenagers who may have a myriad of new experiences while their parents are elsewhere. A 2017 investigative report by NBC News found that sexual assault victims are often under 18 on cruise ships.
According to our research, the rate of sexual assault and rape on cruise ships is still far below those in even the safest American cities. It would be best if you always took the same safety precautions and due diligence on a cruise to go out to a bar or a club.
The Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010 tried to address some of the most pernicious sexual assault problems on cruise ships. It mandates:
- Installation of one-way peepholes in passenger stateroom doors
- Installation of alarm buttons in high-risk areas that will make a loud sound when triggered
- Time-sensitive access keys for the crew that disable crew access to passenger quarters once the ship has embarked
Is Carnival the Most Dangerous Cruise Line For Sexual Assault?
Of the 60 cases of alleged sexual assault reported by cruise companies in the first three quarters of 2018, fully half of those occurred on Carnival Cruise Lines. In 2017 there were a total of 76 alleged sexual assaults with 11 cruise companies reporting. Carnival Cruise Lines accounted for 46 percent of those, with 35 of its cases reported.
But is it fair to single out Carnival? Its relatively high rate of alleged sexual assault could correlate to its market dominance; more cruisers correlate with more reports of sexual assault.
From our research using the available data, this appears to be the case.
In 2011 the U.S. Department of Transportation released its “North American Cruise Statistical Snapshot.” Among other things, this detailed the number of passenger nights people spent aboard cruise ships by company. It found that Carnival accounted for 54 percent of the cruise market.
Data from 2011 shows that of the 13 incidences of alleged sexual assault reported by cruise companies that year, precisely seven (54 percent) were from Carnival. In 2012 there were 11 alleged sexual assault incidents, with four of those (36 percent) being from Carnival. If Carnival has managed to maintain its 2011 market stake in the cruise industry around 50 percent up through the present, it is getting an unfair share of the bad press about sexual assaults. So, with the facts in mind, the next time you see a negatively titled report in the Huffington Post shaming Carnival Cruise Lines, you will not unduly panic if you have just booked your family cruise.