The Real Reason for the Tragedy of the Titanic

Published in ABC’s The Drum as ‘Regulatory Failure of Titanic Proportions’, 11 April 2012, and in the Wall Street Journal as ‘The Real Reason for the Tragedy of the Titanic‘, 12 April 2012.

In the 1958 Titanic film “A Night to Remember,” Captain Smith is consulting with the shipbuilder Thomas Andrews. After the two realize that the Titanic will sink and that there are not enough lifeboats for even half those aboard, Smith quietly says “I don’t think the Board of Trade regulations visualized this situation, do you?”

In the run-up to the 100th anniversary of this tragedy this weekend, there’s been a lot of commentary about who and what were to blame. Left unsaid is that the Titanic’s lifeboat capacity is probably the most iconic regulatory failure of the 20th century.

The ship had carried 2,224 people on its maiden voyage but could only squeeze 1,178 people into its lifeboats. There were a host of other failures, accidents, and mishaps which led to the enormous loss of life, but this was the most crucial one: From the moment the Titanic scraped the iceberg, the casualties were going to be unprecedented.

Yet the Titanic was fully compliant with all marine laws. The British Board of Trade required all vessels above 10,000 metric tonnes (11,023 U.S. tons) to carry 16 lifeboats. The White Star Line ensured that the Titanic exceeded the requirements by four boats. But the ship was 46,328 tonnes. The Board of Trade hadn’t updated its regulations for nearly 20 years.

The lifeboat regulations were written for a different era and enforced unthinkingly. 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.

Recent history had confirmed this understanding. The Republic sank in 1909, fatally crippled in a collision. But it took nearly 36 hours for the Republic to submerge. All passengers and crew—except for the few who died in the actual collision—were transferred safely, in stages, to half a dozen other vessels.

Had Titanic sunk more slowly, it would have been surrounded by the Frankfurt, the Mount Temple, the Birma, the Virginian, the Olympic, the Baltic and the first on the scene, the Carpathia. The North Atlantic was a busy stretch of sea. Or, had the Californian (within visual range of the unfolding tragedy) responded to distress calls, the lifeboats would have been adequate for the purpose they were intended—to ferry passengers to safety.

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?

This is not the way the story is usually told.

Recall in James Cameron’s 1997 film, “Titanic,” the fictionalized Thomas Andrews character claims to have wanted to install extra lifeboats but “it was thought by some that the deck would look too cluttered.” Mr. Cameron saw his movie as a metaphor for the end of the world, so historical accuracy was not at a premium.

Yet the historian Simon Schama appears to have received his knowledge of this issue from the Cameron film, writing in Newsweek recently that “Chillingly, the shortage of lifeboats was due to shipboard aesthetics.” (Mr. Schama also sees the Titanic as a metaphor, this time for “global capitalism” hitting the Lehman Brothers iceberg.)

This claim—that the White Star Line chose aesthetics over lives—hinges on a crucial conversation between Alexander Carlisle, the managing director of the shipyard where Titanic was built, and his customer Bruce Ismay, head of White Star Line, in 1910.

Carlisle proposed that White Star equip its ships with 48 lifeboats—in retrospect, more than enough to save all passengers and crew. Yet after a few minutes discussion, Ismay and other senior managers rejected the proposal. The Titanic historian Daniel Allen Butler (author of “Unsinkable”) says Carlisle’s idea was rejected “on the grounds of expense.”

But that’s not true. In the Board of Trade’s post-accident inquiry, Carlisle was very clear as to why White Star declined to install extra lifeboats: The firm wanted to see whether regulators required it. As Carlisle told the inquiry, “I was authorized then to go ahead and get out full plans and designs, so that if the Board of Trade did call upon us to fit anything more we would have no extra trouble or extra expense.”

So the issue was not cost, per se, or aesthetics, but whether the regulator felt it necessary to increase the lifeboat requirements for White Star’s new, larger, class of ship.

This undercuts the convenient morality tale about safety being sacrificed for commercial success that sneaks into most accounts of the Titanic disaster.

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 easy to weave the Titanic disaster into a seductive tale of hubris, social stratification and capitalist excess. But the Titanic’s chroniclers tend to put their moral narrative ahead of their historical one.

At the accident’s core is this reality: British regulators assumed responsibility for lifeboat numbers and then botched that responsibility. With a close reading of the evidence, it is hard not to see the Titanic disaster as a tragic example of government failure.