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Opening Arguments

Titanic disasters

Today's food-for-thought article -- "The Real Reason for the Tragedy of the Titanic." It wasn't hubris or negligence, as the current wisdom suggests. Maritime regulations had not been updated to account for a ship that big, and the Titanic was compliant with all the exiasting rules.

So why didn't the regulators, shipbuilders or operators make the obvious connection between lifeboat capacity and the total complement of passengers and crew?

It had been 40 years since the last serious loss of life at sea, when 562 people died on the Atlantic in 1873. By the 20th century, all ships were much safer.

Moreover, the passage of time changed what regulators and shipowners saw as the purpose of lifeboats. 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.

[. . .]

There was, simply, very little reason to question the Board of Trade's wisdom about lifeboat requirements. 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?

[. . .]

The responsibility for lifeboats came "entirely practically under the Board of Trade," as Carlisle described the industry's thinking at the time. Nobody seriously thought to second-guess the board's judgment.

This is a distressingly common problem. 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.

And regulated entities tend to comply with the specifics of the regulations, not with the goal of the regulations themselves. All too often, once government takes over, what was private risk management becomes regulatory compliance.

It's clear from reading the scathing reports on what went wrong to bring about the Indiana State Fair that the same lulled-into-complacency effect that doomed the Titanic was present. The stage wasn't up to code on the force of winds it would withstand, but there hadn't been a major disaster in a long time to remind everybody of that lack. And there were really no adequate emergency plans, so when the worst happened, nobody was in charge.

It's necessary to bring a sense of accountability to the table -- responsibility, not merely blame -- but that's not the most important thing. It's to use the investigative report to try to keep such a disaster from happening again:

Fair officials promised to implement the firms' recommendations, which include hiring a chief operating officer to oversee public safety. At least one victim of the tragedy said she would prefer to see improvements rather than an extended blame game.

The governor says he's sending the investigation results to other states to help them avoid our mistakes, which is making the best use of all of them.