Beware of Congress Trying to Make Things Safer: The SS Eastland Disaster

We all want to be safer, right? Sometimes we scream "There oughtta be a law!!!"  Congress made a law once that was fully intended to make things a lot safer, but which didn't (okay, maybe they've done that more than once).  The unintended consequences of the Seamen's Law, contributed to the deaths of hundreds of people.

When the RMS Titantic sank on 15 April 1912, the greatest tragedy is that the ocean liner had far too few lifeboats to accommodate its passengers and crew.  In an attempt to solve this problem, the United States Congress passed the Seamen's Act, which, among other things, required each ship to provide enough lifeboats to accommodate the maximum number of people that could board the ship.

The new law required all existing ships to be retrofitted in order to be in compliance.   The additional weight of the added lifeboats caused the SS Eastland to be unstable.  On the brink of its first voyage following the addition of lifeboats, with its full contingent of 2,752 passengers, the Eastland groaned sharply toward its port side and rolled into the river.  Of those on board, 844 perished.

Was it the proper role of the federal government to ensure that all ships have enough lifeboats?  In my opinion, no.

When the federal government makes a mistake, that mistake must be borne by all Americans.  When an individual state makes a mistake, the same mistake may be avoided by other states who learn from the lesson.  Additionally, decisions that are made on a more local level will be likely to involve people who understand the potential ramifications of those decisions--such as shipbuilders.

So, the next time you think "There oughtta be a law!", think about who should make that law.  Chances are, it shouldn't be the federal government, because chances are, when Congress overreacts in order to make something safer, it can actually make it more dangerous.


  1. Conversely, it's foolish to ignore (intentionally?) the instances where a solution at the federal level is a more proper role of government.

    Food and drug regulation, airport security guidelines, trade...

    Sometimes it would be easier to have a conversation about state rights (and a more rational conversation at that) if so many currently riding on that bandwagon refused to admit that yes, indeed, there are instances when problems can be solved much better at the federal level, just as often as there are instances when problems can be solved at the state level.

    In fact, it's in the Constitution...

  2. Jason: Excellent point. There ARE things that are better done by the Federal government, and there ARE things that are reserved to the federal government. You are correct that we should be a little less knee-jerk on both sides by simply sitting down and discussing which things should be handled at a federal level and which should be handled at a local level. Perhaps I can get things going: I agree with the Utah Patrick Henry Caucus and the Utah legislature that the federal government has far overstepped its bounds constitutionally by how much Utah land that it owns.

  3. Thanks for that link. Your "among other things" this act included were:

    1. Abolish imprisonment for desertion
    2. Reduce penalties for disobedience
    3. Regulate the working hours of seamen both at sea and in port
    4. Establish a minimum quality for rations supplied to seamen
    5. Regulate the payment of wages to seamen
    6. Require specific levels of safety, particularly the provision of lifeboats
    7. Require a minimum percentage of the seamen aboard a vessel to be qualified Able Seamen
    8. Require a minimum of 75% of the seamen aboard a vessel to understand the language spoken by the officers

    Rather than placing the entire blame the Federal Government for the disaster one needs to also consider the engineering knowledge available in 1915 when the law was passed.

  4. JBT: Excellent point. I did not mean to blame the federal government for the entire disaster. I just meant to point out, besides the importance of leaving to the states the things that they are constitutionally bound to do and are better at, that results do not always match intentions. It is much more likely for something like this to happen the farther away from the people the decision is made.

  5. It is absurd to say that any safety requirements or health regulations that are necessary for the well being of all citizens should come willy nilly from 50 different state legislatures instead of a central government. The same applies to the uniform enforcement of those regulations. The foolishness of the smaller government crowd's thinking never ceases to amaze me---especially yours Frank.

  6. JBT: You're being mean again. ;-)


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