Ferries: how US compares. Safety experts say Europe's advanced design has flaws

The design of most ferries in the US may make them safer in some ways than the vessel that sank in the North Sea last Friday. ``Our [ferries] aren't nearly as big, luxurious, or numerous as the ones in Europe,'' says Frank Braynard, curator of the American Merchant Marine Museum at Kings Point, New York, and an expert on passenger vessels. The US, he says, lags behind Europe in building large and technologically advanced ferries. The Europeans have pioneered designs that combine sophisticated docking equipment with loading doors that enable cars and trucks to drive directly onto decks near the water line. The emphasis in these operations is speed and volume. Some critics say the vast, open car decks used on the ferry that sank made it vulnerable to capsizing.

In the aftermath of last week's accident, in which 134 people are presumed killed, some British politicians are calling for an inquiry into whether commercial pressures led to a loosening of safety standards. Safety experts also are focusing on the high sides of the ship, which some contend made it more likely to overturn during an accident.

The US Coast Guard says there are about 95 ferries weighing over 100 tons operating in US waters, largely in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Officials say none of the US ships use the advanced design configuration found in the Herald of Free Enterprise. The most common designs in the US are open-deck ships, in which cars drive directly onto the deck, and side-loading ships. ``We simply don't have the type that load through the bow at this level, with large vehicle decks at or near the water line,'' says a Coast Guard spokesman.

Although the cause of last week's disaster remains unclear, attention is focusing on the ship's loading doors. It is believed that the ship's doors were open when it left the Belgian port of Zeebrugge bound for Dover. Regulations forbid this; but analysts say it is common to leave doors open while getting underway in order to ventilate vehicle decks.

Investigators remain puzzled as to why water rushed in through the doors, capsizing the ship in less than a minute. One theory is that the ship's ballast system was flawed - lowering the bow and allowing sea water to enter the ship through the open doors.

The British inquiry into the accident is expected to be filed with the International Maritime Organization in London within weeks.

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