Maybe, just maybe, last month's oil tanker collision with a Bay Bridge tower awakened the maritime community to the need for tougher regulation of ship traffic on the bay, especially in foggy conditions.
This week, the San Francisco Bay Harbor Safety Committee will consider temporary guidelines discouraging outbound ships from crossing under the bridge when visibility is less than 3,000 feet. And ships going in either direction should generally use the widest openings under the bridge.
This may all seem like common sense. But the 2007 Cosco Busan accident -- in which a cargo ship sideswiped the bridge in dense fog, dumping 53,000 gallons of bunker fuel, oiling 69 miles of shore and killing more than 6,500 birds -- wasn't enough to move maritime leaders.
While they wrote new rules after that incident to restrict sailing in risky areas when visibility is less than a half mile, they amazingly left out the area around the bridge.
Bay Area News Group reporter Paul Rogers exposed the omission after the latest near-disaster. In that case, the oil tanker Overseas Reymar, crossing under the same Bay Bridge section as the Cosco Busan five years earlier, hit a bridge tower in fog.
The president of San Francisco Bar Pilots said restricting movement around the bridge in heavy fog could shut down bay ports for a long time. The concern is that the primary place to anchor ships is south of the bridge off the shore near AT&T Park. Ships coming from sea need to get there before they drop anchor, or they will be left circling and creating a potential traffic nightmare.
We understand the concern, but a working group of the Harbor Safety Committee finally figured out the obvious: That doesn't justify leaving outbound ships unrestricted. They shouldn't set out, much less cross under the bridge, in heavy fog.
The new guidelines will be brought to the full safety committee on Thursday. The meeting begins at 10 a.m. in the Pier 1 Conference Center on the Embarcadero in San Francisco.
It's important to note that these are only temporary guidelines. Temporary because the committee wants to wait for completion of investigations of the Overseas Reymar accident. Guidelines because the committee has no authority beyond that. Enforcement is left up to the Coast Guard and the Board of Pilot Commissioners.
The committee should adopt the guidelines on Thursday. But that's just a first step. The guidelines should be made permanent. Procedures must also be figured out to keep inbound ships away from the bridge in heavy fog.
Finally, it's well past time for state lawmakers to require tugboat escorts on the bay for ships carrying deadly chemicals. The escorts have long been required for oil tankers, but chemical carriers have been exempted.
There's no excuse for that. It shouldn't take another accident for lawmakers to act.