100 Years of SOLAS Viewed

By Tracy Murrell

RMS Titanic. Image credit: Wikipedia
RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912

Twenty minutes before midnight on April 14, 1912, the RMS Titanic, with more than 2,200 passengers and crew aboard, struck an iceberg. At 2:20 the next morning, the state-of-the-art liner sank beneath the cold waters of the North Atlantic, claiming the lives of more than 1,500 men, women, and children.

Tragically, there was room in lifeboats for scarcely half those aboard. Perhaps worse, because of ill-defined evacuation procedures, some of the lifeboats departed half-empty.

The Titanic’s story has been told many times through art, literature, and film. What is less well-known is what the world’s major seafaring powers did in response.

One hundred years ago today, on January 20, 1914, 13 nations agreed on the terms of the International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea, or SOLAS. It was a landmark international agreement, establishing international standards on (among other things) watertight and fireproof bulkheads; signaling apparatus (particularly wireless telegraphy); safety of navigation; and lifesaving, fire prevention, and firefighting equipment.

Shortly thereafter, the First World War broke out. Only five countries had signed the treaty when it went into force in 1915. But from humble beginnings, international marine safety grew into a truly global undertaking. SOLAS has survived revolutions and world wars and today 159 countries are signed on.

From the beginning, SOLAS provided realistic flexibility in meeting requirements: for example, provisions applied to new ships in full, but each country’s existing vessels could be modified “with a view to improvements providing increased safety where practicable and reasonable.”

Nations were also encouraged to allow innovations that equaled or exceeded the safety specifications in the treaty’s first incarnation. So it was that life-rafts came into use alongside life-boats, and that marine evacuation systems came into use alongside life-rafts in a later era.

In the United States, the NTSB has investigated domestic marine accidents and made safety recommendations since the agency’s founding in 1967. Today, 100 years after SOLAS was signed, we have included passenger vessel safety on our Most Wanted List for 2014 – our top 10 safety priorities.

On this anniversary, we’re reminded that for 100 years, SOLAS has mandated a seat on a lifeboat for every passenger on an international voyage. We think it’s time to provide the modern equivalent in domestic marine transportation. One safety improvement we’re focusing on is out-of-water flotation for passengers and crew (rather than life floats or other devices that leave survivors exposed to water).

We’re also encouraging standardized documented procedures to be kept by vessel operators and the use of voyage data recorders (VDRs), so that investigators can better learn what went wrong when an accident does happen.

We’re modeling our approach on the flexibility that was and is built into SOLAS. We’re avoiding over-specifying safety procedures, because the men and women on-board vessels are the ones who know their operations best: Better to build a concise safety management system that is well utilized and helps save lives, than volume after volume of unused irrelevant material. Similarly, a basic voyage data recorder without audio is better than no VDR at all.

It’s been 100 years since the seagoing nations of the world authored SOLAS, their refusal to accept the status quo in safety at sea. This year, the NTSB is committed to seeing marine safety at home catch up.

Tracy Murrell is Director of NTSB’s Office of Marine Safety.

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