The odds that a passenger or crew member of a cruise liner will survive falling overboard are statistically low. It is more likely than not, for example, that the victim will panic and hyperventilate when they hit the water, swallowing seawater and drowning shortly thereafter. Even if the individual is able to keep themselves calm, and shout and scream from the water, their survival remains hostage to the serendipitous presence of witnesses and a staffed deckside CCTV system.

Both were absent when Kristen Schroder and her boyfriend, Paul Rossington, disappeared off of the Carnival Spirit on the evening of 8 May 2013. An inquest into their deaths held the subsequent year heard that, following an argument, Schroder had clambered atop a deckside railing, only to accidentally slip overboard. The pathologist assigned to the case testified that she was likely unconscious when she entered the water, after hitting another railing on the way down. A trained paramedic, Rossington dove in straight after her. The crew would only realise both passengers were missing when they failed to disembark as expected the following morning.

Although the number of cases where passengers disappear on cruise ships is tiny compared with the millions who travel on them annually, critics claim that many of the deaths that do arise could be avoided if operators install what are termed as man-overboard (MOB) systems on all of their vessels. A combination of radar, infrared sensors, cameras and analytics software, these platforms are promoted by vendors as capable of automatically detecting a falling human body and alerting the crew. It is hardware that has been cited in US legislation as a technology that the cruise industry should aspire to adopt across their fleets. However, few operators have.

Statistical anomalies

Paste it into a Word document and the list of books, essays and articles Professor Ross Klein has published on the cruise industry stretches to ten full pages. A professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland, Klein has been studying the sector since 2000. Although he now enjoys a reputation as one of the leading critics of its environmental and safety practices, the origins of his interest were more prosaic.

"When my wife and I got together in 1992, we started taking cruises as a vacation choice," says Klein. "Three years later, we were spending about 40-45 days a year at sea. And as we were spending more time on board, I was seeing things and going 'I think there are things here that really need to be written about'."

"Excluding cases on ferries, 25 passengers and crew are recorded by as having gone overboard in 2015, of which six were rescued."

That fixation led to Klein writing a book on industry-wide environmental practices in 2003. The reams of data that accompanied the professor's research – information that included statistics on MOB incidents that, in most cases, wasn't easily accessible anywhere else – led him to found, to share what he had discovered with the general public. Klein has been updating his lists ever since.

His dogged commitment has led to his becoming the authority among international media outlets on the annual number of deaths in MOB incidents. Excluding cases on ferries, 25 passengers and crew are recorded by as having gone overboard in 2015, of which six were rescued (according to Klein's records, only 17% of those who have fallen have been rescued since 2000). Only three of these incidents were not sourced from or confirmed by news reports, and all of them were subsequently rescued. Even so, Klein worries that the information he has gathered for remains incomplete.

"Some of those who fell would have been rescued," he says. "Some we know would have perhaps been suicides, but I think if we look at the data over years, there are always a proportion of cases that are mysterious."

In fact, Klein estimates that only around 40% of the cases recorded on have usable data on the lead up to the incident. Despite widespread claims to the contrary, this can only allow for an incomplete picture of the trends behind MOB incidents from which one might glean broader conclusions on personal or corporate liability. According to Klein's dataset of cases from January 1995 to June 2013, only 6.2% of individuals were known to be intoxicated; 11% were confirmed as suicides and another 9.5% as accidental falls; 7.1% happened following an argument; 3.3% were murders.

"I think alcohol certainly is a factor," says Klein. "Casino losses are a major factor. I'm amazed at the number of cases that an individual has just had a major fight with the person that they're travelling with, and, you know, often that's combined with alcohol and they go overboard. Those certainly are among the more common ones."

Personal responsibility

CLIA represents over 95% of international cruise capacity. As head of the organisation's technical and regulatory affairs department, Bud Darr has become the default spokesman covering MOB incidents for the
industry at large.

"It's a challenge to prevent those specific incidents from happening but nonetheless we work at it very hard," says Darr. "There are features such as minimum railing and balcony heights, structural barriers and crew training procedures to help make it extremely difficult for any passenger or crew member who is acting responsibly from simply falling off a cruise ship."

While critics like Klein have argued that MOB systems should form the centrepiece of any preventative strategy, CLIA has only cautiously endorsed the potential of such technology. "There are a variety of methods and systems available to assist," says Darr. "It is most likely to be a combination of those mechanisms that are brought together through sophisticated analytic software that will ultimately provide the best technology-based solution to assist as one component within a system."

This enthusiasm does not extend to mass adoption of MOB systems by cruise operators. In reality, most choose to rely only on CCTV to detect people falling overboard. And while in many cases this has only alerted the crew of an incident long after the fact, the industry is not legally obliged to install anything more complex. "The law in 2010 that Congress passed [the 'Cruise Vessel and Security Safety Act (CVSSA) 2010'] required 'image capture or detection technology'," explains Darr. "The industry, in the absence of regulations from the US Coastguard, still had acted very responsibly and had moved towards image capture of greater capability."

In 2015, the agency reaffirmed this interpretation of the written law as a choice between these two obligations. This is not to say, according to Darr, that the industry has lacked the wherewithal to test the capabilities of existing MOB systems. "We've seen cruise lines test these systems on board in cooperation with vendors," he says.

"We've seen them develop and fine-tune the reliability and performance of those systems, and also the ability to withstand a very harsh marine environment. It's always a bit of a challenge to get electronic equipment to do that under all operating conditions. And we have seen a trend with the systems that are leading the way in development towards fewer false positives."

Therein lies one of the central objections to the mass adoption of MOB systems by the cruise industry; most can't distinguish between a passenger falling into the ocean and a seagull suddenly flying into shot. Moreover, the industry remains largely unconvinced that the complex interplay between the system's lasers, cameras and alarm triggers would not be degraded by the harsh marine conditions that they'll endure on multiple voyages.

The trouble with that, according to Klein, is that viable MOB systems have existed for enough time to justify adoption by operators. "I saw a demonstration of a system developed by a German company a few years ago," he says. "It was quite impressive and, at least from what I could see, was quite reliable. And it wasn't a particularly expensive system."

This is not, as Klein sees it, just the fault of the operators. "I would say the lack of progress is more the result of a failure on the part of legislators, and on the part of those responsible for developing the policies and procedures for actually doing things in a timely manner," he says.

Law thinking

For those who want to see a tightening of the law, there is hope in the Cruise Passenger Protection Act of 2015. Proposed by Representative Doris Matsui (D-CA) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), the new legislation would make the installation of CCTV systems and MOB technology mandatory when operating a cruise vessel. Klein isn't optimistic about the bill's passage. "I still think it's unlikely that MOB technology requirements or the CPPA will make it out of committee, much less to the Senate floor and through the House," he says. "I'd prefer to be proven wrong but I don't see much public pressure on legislators to make those changes."

"For those who want to see a tightening of the law, there is hope in the Cruise Passenger Protection Act of 2015."

It certainly isn't coming from the industry. CLIA is hostile to the legislation, believing that the spirit of the Blumenthal-Matsui bill blithely ignores the progress that is being made by the industry in developing viable MOB technology. "The Cruise Passenger Protection Act would target the cruise industry for unnecessary and punitive regulatory treatment to the exclusion of industry competitors," says Darr.

A definite timeline as to the development of an MOB system in the manner endorsed by CLIA has, however, proven elusive. "Speculation I'm just not comfortable with," adds Darr. "I can't hang a definite timeline on it, because ultimately that's going to be very systems-specific and company-specific, because they operate in different ways and have different physical configurations."

"I think the one thing that might be useful to the overall dialogue is connecting the statements of vendors with the true operational needs of cruise lines with a standardised testing protocol," he adds. "Once there is some standardisation as to what the performance expectations are, and how to demonstrate and meet that, I think we'll all be a lot better off."

How might that be practically achieved? "I think the most likely forum for that to occur would probably be the International Standards Organisation," says Darr. "They have a long history of establishing performance protocols in a variety of marine contexts."

When asked whether CLIA had made an approach to the ISO on this matter, Darr clarified that it had not, and that the organisation was one of many that could develop a standardised testing protocol for MOB systems.

Aside from the legislation currently being read in committee in the US Congress, there are no other concerted attempts being made to change international standards in this way. By and by, the incident statistics don't necessarily warrant one, especially given that the regulations currently in force were only passed six years ago and doubts remain over the inherent reliability of MOB systems.

What is clear is that the technology is needed, as well as incontrovertible proof for operators and governments alike that it works under all maritime conditions. Only once that is provided can the elimination of MOB fatalities truly begin.