Rules of the Road, Introduction

Over the last 100 years, the evolution of the automobile has changed the daily lives of Americans making them more mobile and expanding individual freedoms. Imagine what it would be like today if we had not developed traffic regulations and laws to maintain some semblance of order on our streets and highways? In 1927, the American Association of State Highway Officials published the first uniform road construction, signage, and traffic regulations. In today’s world, the knowledge and application of these laws are second nature and learning them is a milestone toward adulthood when you get your first driver’s license. It signifies maturity, responsibility, and personal accountability; to be given the right to operate a motor vehicle. It’s sometimes hard to believe that the freedom the automobile has brought us today has transpired in such a brief moment in human history.

Image of a painting of merchant ships from the late 1700's.

Merchant ships from the late 1700’s.

Boating, on the other hand, has a history that dates back centuries. In the early days, *vessel regulations were not needed since the number of vessels navigating the globe were few; and, encounters with other vessels were rare unless they were being taken as a prize! With the world no longer dependent on sail, global expansion and advancements in technology of the 19th century created much more versatile vessels and a need for a system of rules to prevent collisions at sea. In 1889 the United States convened the first international convention to consider regulations for preventing collisions but it was not until 1940 that the regulations for small vessels under 65 feet were established.  A complete reorganization and modernization, the navigation rules were later completed in 1971, which remain the basis for the rules we have today. This is a short recap of nearly 200 years of evolution of the rules, but hopefully, you get a feel for their purpose in enhancing the safety of mariners and boaters alike.

So why is this important?  Let’s go back to 1958. This was when the Federal Boating Act was passed. In the years prior, the nation experienced the highest recorded boating fatality rates.  Although this addressed some of the issues it was not until 1971 when regulatory requirements changed and the Federal Boating Safety Act was put into place requiring manufacturing standards and safety equipment requirements. Because of the new standards, the fatality rates steadily continued to fall and today we see very little change in the numbers. Accidents and fatalities due to vessel design and mechanical problems have virtually become non-existent. The only factor unresolved is the “human factor.”

Graph depicting a decline in boating fatalities since enacting the Federal Boating Safety Act of 1958.

The impact of boating safety laws on recreational boating fatalities over time.

The Coast Guard is initiating human factor interventions using a public health model to help reduce accidents and fatalities. Taking into account human factors, characteristics of the source of harm, and the environment identifies causes and suggests possible interventions. So why bring this up in a discussion about navigation rules? Fatalities are the final result of a chain of events that, if not corrected, lead to that end. So, early intervention can prevent the accident from happening, changing the end result. The leading casual factors in boating accidents are operator behavior and inattention.

Image of a Chesapeake Bay collision between a power boat and sail boat in August 2018.

Chesapeake Bay collision in August 2018. Full article:

Over the past 10 years, operator behavior has been the leading cause of boating accidents nationwide. Alcohol continues to be a contributing factor. Poor operator behavior takes on many forms: distracted operation, failure to keep a lookout, operating at unsafe speed and failure to follow the Navigation Rules. Keeping a proper lookout and safe speed are included in the navigation rules. The basic intent of navigation rules is to prevent collisions but they also reduce congestion, user conflict, and other accidents. Having a basic knowledge and the ability to apply these rules is a fundamental necessity in operating a boat safely. From paddle craft to freighters and everything in between, these rules apply equally with the exception of special circumstances, which are identified in the rules as well.

So if you’re a boater, how does this apply to you?  First, the rules apply to all *vessels. This means every description of watercraft used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on the water. Best way to understand this is by what is not considered a vessel. These are pool toys or swimming aids such as air mattresses, inner tubes, inflatable flamingos, etc. Rafts, canoes, kayaks, sailboards, kiteboards and stand up paddle boards are considered vessels. Regardless of your choice of vessel, it is incumbent on all vessel operators to prevent collisions.  Continually being aware of your surroundings plays a key role in preventing collisions. Taking immediate and positive action to prevent a collision is the first step.

“Every vessel shall use all available means appropriate to the prevailing conditions to determine if the risk of collision exists. If there is any doubt such risk shall exist.”  One of the mistakes most people make is assuming what the other boater may or may not do.  This is a dangerous guessing game and hesitation costs you time.  If there is any doubt a risk of collision exists, you must take early and positive action to avoid the collision. So how do you know if a risk of collision actually exists? We first need to understand the “principle of relative motion.” Relative motion is the motion of an object with regard to some other moving object. We subconsciously use this principle every day. You’re driving down the road or walking down a street. You see a car or person heading your direction. You notice that their position relative to yours is not changing and they are getting closer. You automatically know that if something does not change you’re going to collide. You can either slow down, speed up or turn and slow down to let them pass in front of you. In the boating world, this is called “constant bearing decreasing range.” This is when the risk of collision exists.

So how do you avoid having an accident when the risk of collision is established? Operating at a safe speed where you have sufficient time to slow your speed to avoid a collision or changing course in sufficient time to remove the risk. The key is vigilance and maintaining a proper lookout at all times to establish when the risk exists. It is important that “any action taken shall be positive, made in ample time and with due regard to good seamanship.” Simply put, once you know there is a risk of collision, take action in plenty of time and give yourself plenty of room to maneuver. Don’t wait until the last minute reducing your options for safe passage. A simple course change or slowing your speed alone may fix the problem but you have to make sure that you do so in a significant enough manner that there is no doubt by the other vessel that you have slowed your speed or changed course. If you have a VHF radio, call the other vessel, discuss your intentions and agree on a course of action. Remember, you can’t force someone else to comply. They have to first have knowledge of the navigation rules and then secondly, a willingness to comply. This is why it is so important to identify and address the risk of collision early enough to be able to safely react if the other vessel is not going to comply.

Rules of the road infographic from BoatUS Foundation.

Powerboat rules of the road infographic from BoatUS Foundation.

Looking at the Navigation Rules book this all seems pretty complex but when you break the rules down into what actually applies to the average recreational boater it’s just basic common sense.  Most accidents could be avoided if the basic rules had been followed, proper lookout, safe speed, identifying the risk of collision and actions to avoid a collision. It all falls down to the basics and the philosophy that, “Superior mariners use their superior knowledge to avoid situations which require their superior skills.” Learn the right way and then apply it!

This is just a brief history and introduction to navigation rules. We have talked about the basics.  In fact, we touched on most of Rules 5 (Lookout), 6 (Safe Speed), 7 (Risk of collision) and 8 (Actions to avoid collision).  My future articles will get closer to the individual rules to decipher their meaning and how they apply to you as a recreational boater.  But, if you remember and apply the four rules we touched on today your risk of collision will decrease dramatically.

*The term “Vessel” is synonymous with “boat” for the purposes of this article.

-By Dan ShipmanUS Coast Guard District 13 Logo, US Coast Guard, District 13

(This blog is part of a series of articles about the federal Navigation Rules for boating.  The Marine Board is required by statute to align state boating laws with federal regulations.)


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