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The great Titanic disaster. 1912. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Titanic and the Law: Safety and Science

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The following is a guest post by Deanna Fanelli, a former intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is an international development studies student at UCLA. Deanna has written for In Custodia Legis previously, with her first post being: How a Dam Paved the Way for the National Park Service.

The sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic is one of the most well-known moments in history and has made its mark on movies, books, and music. Aside from changing popular culture, the events of the Titanic greatly impacted another important aspect of society – the law.

Picture of a new article on the sinking on the Titanic in 1912.
The evening world. [volume], 15 April 1912. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.

Impacts on Safety Around the World

This event played an immense role in developing safety measures for navigation purposes around the world. In 1912, a subcommittee of the United States Senate Commerce Committee began conducting hearings on the event, leading to over 1,100 pages of transcripts that feature testimonies on passenger treatment, distress signals, and the inadequate supply of lifeboats and ignored ice warnings.

The committee produced a final report titled Titanic” Disaster: Report of the Committee on Commerce, United States Senate, Pursuant to S. Res. 283, Directing the Committee on Commerce to Investigate the Causes Leading to the Wreck of the White Star Liner “Titanic,” Together with Speeches Thereon by Senator William Alden Smith of Michigan and Senator Isidor Rayner of Maryland. The subcommittee ultimately concluded that “this incident clearly indicates the necessity of additional legislation to secure the safety of life at sea,” and provided a list of safety and legal recommendations.

One immediate piece of legislation passed by Congress that followed the recommendations in the disaster report was the Radio Act of 1912, which required radio operators to obtain a federal license and ships to maintain constant radio alerts for distress signals (page 302).

The effects of the Titanic sinking were apparent in international law as well. The first International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) emerged in 1914. The purpose of this international treaty is to specify the construction, equipment, and operation standards of ships. There have been numerous SOLAS versions, the most recent being the 1974 version (page 47). SOLAS is consistently regarded as the most important international treaty that focuses on the safety of merchant ships. In 1914, the International Ice Patrol was also founded with a mission to “monitor the iceberg danger in the North Atlantic Ocean and provide relevant iceberg warning products to the maritime community.”

A black and white picture of the RMS Titanic in water, circa 1911.
The TITANIC. May 31, 1911. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Impacts on Science and Culture

Aside from influencing safety legislation, the Titanic has been cemented in U.S. and international law as a site of scientific and cultural importance. The United States Congress passed the R.M.S Titanic Maritime Memorial Act of 1986 “to encourage international efforts to designate the shipwreck of the R.M.S. Titanic as an international maritime memorial and to provide for reasonable research, exploration, and, if appropriate, salvage activities with respect to the shipwreck.” The goal of this act was to continue research and exploration for the “purpose of enhancing public knowledge of its scientific, cultural, and historical significance.”

Efforts to preserve the Titanic have gone international as well. In 2001, the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage was adopted to protect underwater cultural heritage, meaning “all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character which have been partially or totally under water, periodically or continuously, for at least 100 years.” In April 2012, a century after the shipwreck, the Titanic became eligible to be protected by UNESCO under the rules of the 2001 convention.

In 2019, the ship entered further protection under an international agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom. The Agreement Concerning the Shipwrecked Vessel RMS Titanic, originally signed in 2003 but ratified by the U.S. in 2019, gives the U.K. and the U.S. the responsibility of granting permits to those wishing to visit the wreck and remove artifacts from the site.

Despite occurring over 100 years ago, it is clear that the events of the Titanic will continue to shape domestic and international law for years to come. For more resources and information about the Titanic, visit the Wreck of the RMS Titanic: A Resource Guide.

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  1. Very good information.

    Thank you.

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