For many of us Washingtonians, ferries conjure up sentimental thoughts of trips to the San Juan Islands or images of ferries humming along Puget Sound with the Seattle skyline or Olympic Mountains behind them.
But the recent ferry accident in South Korea killing almost 300 passengers and another capsizing in Bangladesh remind us that as safe as we may feel on a ferry deck looking at the water go by, there is potential for disaster just like any other means of transportation.
So how safe is our ferry system here at home? Could we be vulnerable to an incident like the one in South Korea?
Ferry passengers can breath easy, because more or less the answer to that question is no.
With the largest ferry fleet in the country, and the third largest in the world, keeping Washington ferries safe is a big undertaking. Its size makes it a possible target for terrorism, something that police train for in preparation if such an event were to occur.
Despite the number of ships and passengers our ferry system manages every year, there hasn’t been a major accident in Washington involving a state ferry nor a fatality as a result of a ferry accident.
“We’ve never had a ferry that has even come close to sinking,” spokeswoman Susan Harris-Huether told the Seattle PI in 2006 following a ferry accident in British Columbia.
Lauren Largé, who frequently rides the ferry between her home in Poulsbo and school at the UW, says that there are some issues she has had on the ferry system but nothing that has been a genuine cause for concern.
Windy conditions and rough terrain can be worrisome, and she said she has seen people leave their cars on, filling the car deck with exhaust. But the attitude of the employees tasked to keep everything safe and orderly is what she says is most unsettling.
“Workers can be rude. That doesn’t make me feel safe,” she said.
Those workers themselves are likely the people most at risk onboard a ferry.
Maritime Attorney Rob Kraft has represented injured maritime workers for years in different states.
Kraft said that equipment issues are at the root of most safety concerns for maritime workers. Things like improper maintenance and equipment failures can result in a variety of injuries.
“It’s the number one type of injury and problem that I see,” he said.
As crewmembers face homicide charges and damming information piles up regarding the accident in South Korea, we are reminded that most every accident in transportation isn’t the fault of the machine, but of man.
Our ferry system successfully transports millions of passengers every year, and as tragic and frightening accidents elsewhere can be, it’s safe to say that we’re in good hands when stepping aboard one of our ferries.
So next time you take a ferry grab some quarters for the arcade games, get some popcorn from the food court and rest easy as you coast along the Puget Sound.