Why Don’t Sick Ships Sink?
Holland America’s Volendam returned to Port Everglades at about 6:30 a.m. Thursday with 74 sick people on board.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 68 passengers and six crewmembers became violently ill with flu-like symptoms. But shortly before noon Thursday, the cruise line issued a statement that said that the total number had escalated to 112.
So, are cruise ships death traps, or merely availability cascades gone amok? The question touches, I think, on behavioral l&e and the problem of deterrence without law. The law governing accidents on ships is complicated, and cruise lines are notorious for attempting, through forum selection and arbitration clauses, to reduce the scope and intensity of tort damages that might deter unsafe living conditions.
Thus, the industry provides a good natural experiment to see whether warnings, together with market forces, work to constrain bad behavior where tort law is relatively under enforced. Quality signals here are provided by the CDC, accessed through their query system or a monthly compilation. Despite lawyers’ best efforts, it is unclear if these signals are getting through to consumers. For example, the Volendam’s recent report score of a 93 seems pretty low for the industry, and contained specific warnings about food handling practices onboard. (Basically, they didn’t keep cream cool, and left it out too long). So why was the ship so fully booked? To the extent that market forces are to correct negligent sanitation practices, consumers have to actually care about getting sick. Is the problem an underappreciation of the risk? Or, a sense that the relevant costs of getting sick are less pressing because folks on vacation don’t miss work? (I looked for pricing differences between high and low quality ships, but couldn’t find good data in the time available.)
For what it is worth, the worse violator on the list that I saw was the Stad Amsterdam Clipper, with a 62. But it sure is a pretty sight to see.
Photo: Royal Caribbean Adventure (Score: 98 on November 5, 2006)