updated 7/31/2009 11:53:13 AM ET 2009-07-31T15:53:13

Vacationers shopping for a cruise might soon have more things to consider than prices and itineraries. They may be able to compare the number of passengers allegedly raped, robbed or lost at sea under a bill approved Thursday for a vote by the U.S. House of Representatives.

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The House Transportation and Infrastructure committee's unanimous approval of the measure, following a Senate committee's passage, clears the way for a vote in both chambers shortly after Congress returns from its August recess.

The Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act tightens restrictions on an industry that has long evaded much scrutiny — in part because of the complexity of international maritime law.

The industry initially opposed the bill, but the Cruise Lines International Association changed its stance. CLIA says most companies already follow many of the provisions — like sharing crime data with the Coast Guard — and some other components are already addressed under existing federal law.

"Millions of passengers each year enjoy a safe cruise vacation, and while serious incidents are rare, even one incident is one too many," CLIA said in a written statement. "As an industry, we are fully committed to the safety and security of our passengers and crew."

Because the industry has refused to release data to the public, the actual crime rate aboard the vessels is unknown but seems low. According to a U.S. House of Representatives memo from 2007, cruise industry executives testified that 178 people in North America reported sexual assaults from 2003 to 2005, and 24 passengers went missing. Compared with about 26 million passengers sailing during the period, those figures amount to crime rates far lower than the national average.

Because sexual assault is among the most frequently alleged crimes — and crew members are often alleged to be the perpetrators — the law requires that each ship carry rape investigation kits and hire or train an employee to preserve evidence.

Ships must also carry antiretroviral medicine to help prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, upgrade video surveillance and install peep holes, security latches and time-sensitive locks on all guest rooms.

Bill sponsors Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and California Rep. Doris Matsui, both Democrats, started working on the issue after constituents shared stories of alleged rape, grief, fear and losing loved ones at sea.

Ken Carver, who brought the issue to Kerry's attention, started a nonprofit called International Cruise Victims after his daughter disappeared on a ship in 2005. He says he was lied to and stonewalled as he tried to learn what happened to her. Other passengers have related similar stories in testimony before Congress.

"In the past three years, I have met far too many American families which have incurred tragedy during what ought to be a relaxing vacation," Matsui said. "For far too long, American families have unknowingly been at risk on cruise ships."

The Secretary of Transportation would initiate a new Web site under the bill with reports updated quarterly on the number of crimes, their nature and whether passengers or crew members are implicated. Each cruise line must also link to the crime statistics page from its Web site.

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