There are two oft-cited shibboleths regarding the White Star Line’s decision to construct just 20 lifeboats for the RMS Titanic: cost and aesthetics.
There must have been some short-sighted reason to equip a ship that could carry more than 2,200 people with lifeboats that couldn’t even handle 1,200, right?
Not necessarily. We forget that the regulatory and safety environment is, in some ways, very different than it was 101 years ago today, when the Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank, taking more than 1,500 souls with her.
Yet, as Chris Berg of the Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne, Australia, wrote last year, the Titanic was fully compliant with all marine laws.
The British Board of Trade required all vessels above 10,000 metric tonnes, or just over 11,000 US tons, to carry 16 lifeboats; the White Star Line went above and beyond the minimum by ensuring that the Titanic exceeded that requirements by four boats.
However, the Titanic weighed more than 51 tons, or far more than upper threshold that the Board of Trade used to base its lifeboat requirement upon.
The problem lay not with greed or a lack of foresight on the part of the Titanic’s builders or owners, but in the fact that regulations had not been updated in nearly 20 years and were designed for a different era.
Berg asks and answers the question as to why regulators, shipbuilders or operators at some point had not ensured that lifeboat capacity wasn’t, at a minimum, equal to the number of passengers and crew aboard a vessel.
The issue was a change in mindset regarding marine safety.
“It had been 40 years since the last serious loss of life at sea, when 562 people died on the Atlantic in 1873,” Berg writes. “By the 20th century, all ships were much safer.”
Perhaps even more crucial, “the passage of time changed what regulators and ship owners saw as the purpose of lifeboats,” he added. “Lifeboats were not designed to keep all the ship and crew afloat while the vessel sank. They were simply to ferry them to nearby rescue ships.”
And, indeed, had the Titanic sunk more slowly, it would have been surrounded by the Frankfurt, the Mount Temple, the Birma, the Virginian, the Olympic, the Baltic and the first on the scene, the Carpathia.
“There was, simply, very little reason to question the Board of Trade’s wisdom about lifeboat requirements,” Berg added. “Shipbuilders and operators thought the government was on top of it; that experts in the public service had rationally assessed the dangers of sea travel and regulated accordingly. Otherwise why have the regulations at all?”
Ultimately, the responsibility for lifeboats was that of the British Board of Trade, not the shipbuilders, ship owners or ship operators.
And, human nature being what it is, once government sets a rule or regulation, compliance with the specific directive often becomes the fundamental goal, rather than the bigger picture behind the rule or regulation.
This problem – and government’s inability or unwillingness to follow up on existing guidelines – is distressingly common, according to Berg.
“Governments find it easy to implement regulations but tedious to maintain existing ones – politicians gain little political benefit from updating old laws, only from introducing new laws.”
Berg concludes by adding that British officials assumed responsibility for regulating the number of lifeboats ships needed, but then bungled that responsibility.
“With a close reading of the evidence, it is hard not to see the Titanic disaster as a tragic example of government failure,” he states.