Why Don’t Sick Ships Sink?

royalcarribiean.jpgI see stories like this with distressing frequency:

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)

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2 Responses

  1. I’m not sure that 93 out of 100 signals to most consumers (even if they see it) that the ship is unsafe. 93% is basically an A-, right? That doesn’t seem to scream “gastrointestinal virus.” We went on the Disney cruise line last November, and had I seen that its scores ranged from 94 to 99, I know that wouldn’t have deterred me at all. The CDC says that 85 or below is unacceptable, so doesn’t that mean that 93 is acceptable? Perhaps the scale should be reset so that 50 is acceptable. Or perhaps this information isn’t that salient. Perhaps information about episodes of passenger illness would be more relevant.

  2. Prozny says:

    I was one of those sick ones when the Volendam docked, but not a recorded case. Lucky for me it hit me the last two days out. I tell you it was not a very pleasant experience. You are reluctant to treport ill because then you may get limited to you’re cabin & goodbye you’re expensive cruise. I’ll give them credit, they try to control as best they can but I feel it is an impossible thing to do because no one knows where it comes from or how it is really transmitted. You wash & disinfect your hans all you want, if you’re going to get it, you’re going to get it regardless.