While it is untrue and simplistic to say that old ships are automatically unsafe ships, the statistics show that there is a definite correlation between age and accidents. Old ships suffer more from corrosion than new ones. They tend to break down more often. They require much more maintenance, which is not always given when most of the world is in recession and freight rates have plummeted. The second aspect of an ageing fleet is less obvious but just as serious. Shipping technology is evolving rapidly and the ships built today are constructed to much higher safety and pollution prevention standards than those built twenty or even ten years ago. Every time the regulations are changed, the "safety gap" grows wider.
In the 1970s the average age of a ship was about 8 years. In 1993 it is about 15. A 1990 Lloyds Register report drew attention to the aging oil shipping fleet. Most oil tankers are now between 10 and 20 years old. There are double the number of incidents involving machinery and hulls among ships in the 15-to 20-year-old range, while fire outbreaks multiply sixfold.
Recent shipping catastrophes suggest that industry standards are worse than even the most pessimistic critics have claimed. Even ships serving the wealthiest industrialized countries endeavour to cut costs by operating under flags of convenience, employing ill-trained crew, and avoiding desirable maintenance. A further concern is safety inspection procedures. Although ships entering Western ports are subject to inspection under the Paris Agreement, there are insufficient resources to ensure all are examined. The Iranian tanker Kharg 5, which shed 70,000 tonnes of oil into the Atlantic after an explosion ripped through the hull in December of 1989, was inspected five times in the previous two years without major structural faults being found. It was known to have been previously hit three times by Iraqi bombs.