Congress Introduces New Cruise Ship Safety Regulations

It's easy to forget when you're sipping a $12 Miami Vice on a bargain-bin weekend cruise to the Bahamas, but cruising can be sketchy business. Despite their cheery, family-friendly reputations, cruise lines are notorious for exploiting foreign workers, dumping waste into our oceans, and leaving passengers to fester in their own shit. And god help you if you have to report an onboard sexual assault.

Not long ago, requirements for cruise lines to report crimes were basically nonexistent. But in 2010, Congress passed a vitally important safety bill known as the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act, which mandated that cruise lines report crimes to the FBI, add a link to those crimes on their websites, add more video surveillance onboard, and start carrying things like rape kits and antiretroviral drugs.

This week, lawmakers introduced a new bill that would further strengthen those basic safety regulations on cruise lines like Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian, all of which are based here in Miami.

"When something goes wrong on a cruise ship, a dream vacation can quickly turn into a nightmare," says U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut who co-sponsored the bill. "Our legislation will ensure that consumers know the risks associated with cruise ship travel before they buy a ticket; and if their rights are violated, this bill will help ensure that they have a place to seek recourse.”

If passed, the Cruise Passenger Protection Act would require the companies to provide better medical care, turn over surveillance footage to passengers taking legal action, install better man overboard detection systems, and report all alleged crimes to the FBI within four hours.

But perhaps the most significant change would affect families of passengers who die at sea. For years, the powerful cruise lobby has fought changes to the Death on the High Seas Act, an archaic statute that allows cruise lines to assume almost no legal responsibility for the deaths of children and retirees. Under the proposed legislation, survivors would now have the same ability to pursue damages as those who have lost a loved one on land or in an airplane crash.

The change would affect families like the Hunters, whose 6-year-old son Qwentyn drowned in a pool on the Carnival Victory three years ago. Because the Orlando boy was too young to have dependents, his family is limited in their ability to seek damages, as existing law essentially places no value on his life other than funeral costs.

"This legislation strengthens existing reporting laws and raises consumer protection standards, so families have the peace of mind they deserve when they board a cruise ship," says U.S. Representatives Doris Matsui, a California Democrat who co-sponsored the House version of the bill. "I am grateful to the victims and their families who have come forward and continue to be essential voices.”

While many cruise industry critics say the new proposal is a step in the right direction, it remains unclear if it can actually get passed. The last time a lawmaker proposed amending DOHSA, the cruise lines and their corporate interest group spent $3.9 million lobbying against the bill. It didn't pass.