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April 11, 2012

100 years later, Titanic-like disaster remains a risk

(Continued)

Though this seems foolish by modern standards, historians note the Titanic was in compliance with maritime regulations at the time. Three years earlier, in 1909, another ship owned by White Star Line sank off the coast of Massachusetts. It took 36 hours for the ship to go down, and in that time, the ship’s lifeboats were used in a relay system, shuttling passengers to shore and returning for more.

"People began to see lifeboats as a convenience," Butler said. "No one imagined a situation where everyone would have to evacuate simultaneously" in an open ocean.

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), passed in 1914, set the new lifeboat rule. It also standardized red rockets as the universal signal of a ship in distress. That came in response to the discovery that the SS Californian, which historians say was just 10 miles from the Titanic, misinterpreted the distress flares sent up by the sinking ship's crew.

Two other major changes included the United States government's Radio Act of 1912 -- which mandated 24-hour monitoring of ships' radios so as to not miss distress calls --  and the creation of the International Ice Patrol, which warns ships of icebergs in the North Atlantic.

"It (SOLAS) has been a good law, to a certain extent," said Charles Lipcon, a Miami, Fla., maritime attorney and author of "Unsafe on the High Seas." Still, he added, disasters remain a risk.

"Cruises are great vacations," said Lipcon. "But the main problem from my point of view is that people leave their common sense at the dock. They get on these ships and they think they’re totally safe."

Last year, 16 million passengers worldwide rode cruise ships, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. And the ships they boarded were, for the most part, far bigger than the Titanic.

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