The future of maritime regulations

By Wayne Steel, Deputy Manager, Marine Department, CL Surveys, IUMI Professional Partner,

The Convention of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs) was first published in 1972 at a conference of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Since its adoption, amendments have been made to the regulation to ensure that it evolved alongside the industry.

Whilst the focus of this article is not on the theory of COLREGS, it may be prudent to provide a brief summary:.

COLREGs was created to replace the pre-existing regulations and have since formed the foundation of the “rule of the road” at sea. They provide practical and legal instructions to seafarers regarding navigation. COLREGs govern specific scenarios typically faced by seafarers and provides guidance as to how those scenarios should be handled. The compliance of these rules theoretically ensures that a vessel is operated in a correct and safe manner in respect to collision avoidance.

To progress at the same rate as the ever-increasing advancements made in modern marine technology, it may be that there will need to be a simultaneous shift in maritime regulations in order to remain relevant.

The purpose of this article is to create a larger debate amongst the maritime community as to precisely how the evolution of technology may or may not affect regulations in the future.  As a catalyst to that debate, I have briefly touched on a few scenarios which illustrate this point:

1.                    AI / Autonomous vessels

There has been much discussion about the introduction of autonomous vessels into the market.

Autonomous vessels may serve to combat human error, however, it remains to be seen whether their effect on maritime regulations will be positive. The question that arises then is whether there will still be a need for seafarers to be well versed in COLREGs and other maritime regulations? 

Whilst COLREGs and other regulations may be seen as a firm set of rules, they also provide for the exercise of human judgment. For example: Under Rule 2b, a seafarer may depart from the rules to avoid an incident. Moreover, under traditional shipping law a ship’s master is obligated to render assistance to those in distress at sea.

This raises the problem of how autonomous vessels, which may be designed to comply strictly with rules, would respond when such a departure is necessary. The well-balanced dichotomy of COLREGs may be difficult to replicate with autonomous vessels.

2.            Modern Technology

With the evolution of modern technology, comes the introduction of larger and faster vessels.

Rule 6 of COLREGs provides a guide as to how to determine the safe speed of a vessel at any given time. Will the rules in their current form regarding safe speed cater to these super vessels?  Undoubtably, the meaning of safe speed today will be vastly different to its future interpretation.

Furthermore, rules 13 and 18 respectively, provide for the safe overtaking and the right of way between power-driven and sailing vessels. Currently, over-taking vessels are required to give way to vessels being overtaken, in the same vein power-driven vessels are required to give way to sailing vessels. With the creation of these large and very fast super vessels, which may have reduced manoeuvrability, a strict adhesion to the current Rules may be difficult.

Further practical examples of how modern technology may conflict with the current rules can be found in Rules 5 and 19 of COLREGs. 

Rule 5 provides for a “proper lookout by sight and hearing….”, however as technological improvements to bridge equipment (radar efficiency etc) are made, will the human factor as envisaged in this rule still be superior and necessary? The impact of modern technology will not only be confined to regulations, it may change the very practices of good seamanship as we know it.

Rule 19 provides for the conduct of vessels in situations of restricted visibility.  Perhaps this will no longer be a concern considering the greater navigational assistance provided by technology. 

In contrast, investigations into marine related incidents have been greatly assisted by the advancements made in modern technology with the introduction of systems such as ECDIS, AIS, VDR, to name a few.

3.            Increased Liability

With the evolution of industry comes an increase in liability. Additionally, the value of cargo has and will continue to increase exponentially in the future.

This has a direct impact on the practical application of the regulations. The fear of increased commercial and possible criminal liability may lead to an upsurge of instances in which seafarers and vessel operators deliberately depart from regulations. Consequently, will maritime regulations surrounding this increased liability need to be re-considered in the future?

4.            Pollution and environmental concerns

Today there is greater awareness of climate change and the protection of the environment.

We are seeing an increase in regulations designed to protect the environment and the relevant law is becoming severe. With this increased severity of the law, in practice might the prevention of a pollution incident take preference over compliance of the law?

In conclusion, whilst it remains to be seen as to how these advancements will practically impact maritime regulations in the future, what is clear is that they are unavoidable, and it is imperative for the industry to evolve alongside them.