02/01/2012 07:15 am ET Updated Apr 02, 2012

A Cruise Officer's Perspective On How Ships Could Be Safer

Jay Herring is author of the book The Truth About Cruise Ships and a former senior officer with Carnival Cruise Lines.

The disturbing images have made their way around the world: The Costa Concordia lists on its side in the Tyrrhenian Sea just off the shore of Isola del Giglio near the western coast of Italy. While the majority of the 4,000 passengers escaped with their lives, so far there are 16 confirmed deaths and 17 passengers still missing.

The big question everyone is asking: How safe is a cruise ship packed with thousands of people if a disaster strikes? As a former senior officer with a major cruise line who had unlimited access to every area of the ship including the bridge, I can honestly say that cruising is extremely safe. The stats prove it. Prior to the Costa Concordia accident, out of 100 million people who took a cruise, 16 were killed in a maritime accident. Cruising is, in other words, among the safest things people do.

Yet, despite the safety record of the industry, the fact still remains that people were killed. With these modern-day vessels continuing to increase in size -- some now carry as many as 6,000 passengers -- it should be a wakeup call for the industry.

Recent debates about whether cruising is safe versus whether it should be safer are misguided. Yes it is safe, but yes it could, and should, be safer. Some shortcomings still need to be addressed.

Chaos and Commotion

If you've ever been on a cruise, you are all too familiar with the notorious muster drill prior to departure. People quickly gather in an assigned lounge and are then ushered on deck, packed in like sardines where they would board one of the lifeboats.

Even though it is only a drill, people are confused. There are often language barriers, and it's a general state of commotion. Now imagine what that would be like in an actual emergency with water coming in, a ship possibly listing to one side and people in a state of panic?

The Concordia captain allegedly abandoned ship while passengers were still aboard, clearly suggesting a breakdown in the order of command. If the captain wasn't calling the shots, who was? A focus on better communication and an understanding of what each crew member's role is at all levels in an emergency needs to be better outlined.

While we now know that it is possible for even a new and technologically advanced ship to be brought down, the good news is that it doesn't happen very often. And when it does, it is usually a slow process which gives crew and passengers plenty of time to escape. It is nevertheless an important reminder that all cruise lines need to implement regular and updated training for all crew.

Crew Training

Training for all onboard crew members has come a long way in the last ten years. Within the last decade, the cruise lines have stepped up safety training at all levels. When I was sailing, "Crew-ranked" crewmembers or 75 percent of the onboard staff were able-bodied seamen that trained for emergencies. Still, a small percentage received very minimal training in the form of a video and a short question-and-answer session immediately following.

Today however, things are much different and for the better. The Coast Guard is regularly onboard running drills, providing refresher courses and making sure staff members know how to lower the life boats. After the Concordia incident, you can bet the focus on safety will continue to increase.

The Future

A new report from Travalliance suggests that nearly a quarter of customers who've booked a cruise have expressed "a high level of concern" about the safety of ships, and 10 percent of 2012 ticket holders are now considering canceling their cruise vacations.

While the Costa Concordia accident might cloud the previously strong image of the cruise industry, passengers should still realize just how safe it is and know they are much more likely to be killed while driving to the port than on the actual ship itself.

The industry has had its challenges but seems to recover quickly. Several years ago, for example, outbreaks of Norovirus were common on cruise ships. Now it's standard practice to have hand sanitizer dispensers located throughout the ship. Norovirus outbreaks have been almost eliminated as a result. Similarly, the Costa Concordia tragedy will make cruising safer in the future.

Cruising remains safe and you can bet the cruise lines are going to learn from this accident and make it even safer.