Last month's collision between a cruise liner and a container vessel in the English Channel has prompted renewed calls for black boxes to be fitted to ships. Across the world, fewer than one in 200 big ships have black boxes, but all P&O's cross-channel ferries have so-called voyage data recorders.
The box is the size and appearance of a wall safe. It is built to withstand shock, fire and the enormous pressure of the ocean depths. After any accident its disc can be retrieved and replayed.
Radio chatter, understandable to seasoned seafarers, can be heard, alongside the recording of radar, data on navigation and engine performance. And given that shipping disasters can develop slowly it is replaced over 24 hours.
It was only after the sinking of passenger ferries that ship owners began to consider fitting black boxes.
The International Maritime Organisation will discuss ship's black boxes at a meeting in London next week. But the secretary general, Bill O'Neil, believes they will be compulsory in three years. "I think the time is now to bring the black boxes into effect," he said. "We've been dealing with the technical requirements of them and the performance standards for some time. We have reached a point where this is all mature enough that it will go through our final committee structure and we will be ready for entry in the year 2002."
Roll-on / roll-off ferries are likely to be the first ships obliged to have black boxes. Freighters and tankers will follow.
Article by Tom Heap BBC News Online