Monday, December 6, 2010

Monday Morning Mariner: Rules of the Road Changes

If you've been having trouble finding the latest version of the Inland Navigation Rules, you may be looking in the wrong book, on the wrong CD-ROM, or on the wrong website. Last May, Congress moved the Inland Rules from the United States Code (USC) to the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). The move was billed as strictly an administrative matter, but there are some implications for working mariners.

The United States Code is the collection of laws passed by Congress and signed by the President. The current Inland Rules have been in effect since 1980. The CFR, however, is rules created by various government departments, in this case by the US Coast Guard. Unlike the USC, changes or additions to the CFR may not be made without the agency giving advance notice to the public. The public is then given an opportunity to comment on any changes before they go into effect.

The Inland Rules are now found in 33 CFR part 83, just before the annexes on lights, signals, pilot rules, etc that are already part of the CFR. The rules have been re-numbered a bit to fit in better with the CFR format, but are substantively the same as you have in your current Rules of the Road book on the bridge. The International Rules (COLREGS) are not affected; these must be changed by international agreement. The Coast Guard may now change Inland Rules through the rulemaking process mentioned above except for rules affecting US ships on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes that might conflict with Canadian law.

The change from USC to CFR was made to make the rules more flexible and open to public debate, but there are limits to the changes that might be made. First, the COLREGS require that a nation's special rules for inland waters conform as closely as possible to the COLREGS. This is why you often see the two sets of rules on facing pages in printed rule books.

Second is the issue of federalism. Regulations enacted by federal agencies are more limited than USC statutes in the degree to which they can preempt state laws. Conflicts on this front would be worked out in court, possibly causing changes in the Inland Rules to take longer under the new system than it did under the old.

The legislation enabling the change was the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2004. To see the whole thing, click here.

To see the Inland Rules in their new CFR home, click here.

Maritime law professor Craig H. Allen, Sr. analyzed the change for the October/November edition of Professional Mariner here.

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