Last week, Transport Canada started notifying ferry operators across Canada that as of September 30, 2020 they were expected to return to the normal operating procedure which requires passengers to leave their vehicles on enclosed car decks only. Passengers can still remain in their cars on partially enclosed or open decks, and in the case of BC Ferries, they can board passengers who request to be on those decks. Transport Canada officials continue to work closely with BC Ferries and the province of BC to ensure a smooth return to normal operating procedures.
It is important to understand that the marine safety risk is real. This regulation came into effect in 2012 following an international ban on passengers remaining in their vehicles on enclosed decks due to the safety risks it poses, should an accident occur. The purpose of enclosed decks is to contain an incident so that passengers above deck can proceed safely to muster points and life rafts. Enclosed decks have vehicles that carry a variety of mixed cargo, like commercial vehicles transporting dangerous goods and RVs with propane tanks. Vehicles are parked closely together which would make an evacuation difficult if there were people and families in their cars.
In March 2020, Transport Canada did grant a temporary flexibility so that passengers could remain in their cars on enclosed deck ferries. It was a response due to the unprecedented circumstances of COVID-19 at a time when the disease was not well understood. While COVID-19 is still present, our understanding of how to mitigate the risk of transmission has evolved across all modes of transportation. In light of effective mitigation measures like face masks, increased sanitation, and physical distancing, the marine safety risk of staying in vehicles below deck is now too high. This flexibility was provided to operators with the understanding that it was temporary. The regulation was never suspended, rather Transport Canada decided not to enforce the regulation because of the exceptional circumstances. There is a serious liability to the federal government in the event of an accident.
Being in an enclosed car deck while a vessel is operating is not safe owing to the difficulties in evacuating occupants safely and quickly, and the elevated risk of fire in a confined space due to the presence of fueled vehicles and various bulk or dangerous goods. Enclosed car decks are built to suppress fires or flooding with the goal of protecting upper decks and passengers from these dangerous marine incidents.
The International Maritime Organization banned the practice in 1995 following several accidents worldwide (e.g., 193 passengers and crew died when the MS Herald of Free Enterprise flooded in Belgium in 1987, 852 died when the MS Estonia also flooded and capsized in the Baltic Sea in 1994).
Between 2005 and 2016, 18 fires, originating from vehicle decks, occurred on roll-on-roll-off ferries worldwide, out of a global fleet of 750 vessels. Five of these resulted in either major damage, abandonment of the vessel, injuries, or fatalities. Injuries and fatalities were minimized in these instances due to the prohibition banning passengers from remaining on the vehicle deck
In Canada, the Transportation Safety Board recommended the change following a 2003 fire on a ferry in Atlantic Canada and Canada amended its Cargo, Fumigation and Tackle Regulations in 2007 to ban the practice. Ensuring that passengers stay in designated passenger areas is a significant protective measure against hazards such as fire, impaired evacuation and injuries.
In the BC Ferries fleet, this regulation applies to the lower, closed vehicle deck on BC Ferries’ larger vessels. Because of the absence or very limited openings to the outside in the sides of these decks, these are classified as enclosed car decks. Please contact BC Ferries regarding their policies on accommodating passenger vehicles with special circumstances such as medical difficulties, challenges or special needs that may preclude them exiting their vehicle.