What If We Drove Cars Like We Drove Ships?


The mini van approaching the intersection to the right of me obviously had the right-of-way.  If nothing else, the red light in front of me ensured that observation, but I was in a bind.  My appointment was in ten minutes and I had to be there.

I picked up the microphone for my driver-to-driver VHF radio and called the other vehicle, “Red mini van approaching Mulholland and Main, this is the SUV to your left.

When they answered, I asked if they would slow down and allow me to cross ahead – my appointment awaited.  They declined, saying that rules were rules and they intended to follow them.  But what of my appointment?

Carefully observing the bearing drift of the approaching mini van (excellent, slightly to the right!), I determined that I could pass ahead without colliding.  A little extra gas to the engine ensured that we passed clear as I roared through the red light.  A miss is as good as a mile, right?

Sounds far-fetched?  Well, just recently I saw this exact scenario play out in a ship simulator in a crossing situation with an experienced senior deck officer in command.  Why is it that we are willing to play fast and loose with the rules of the road on ships weighing tens (if not hundreds!) of thousands of tons, but will comply with them in our personal cars?  Is the risk of being late for a pilot, dock or longshore gang somehow more important than the condition of the vessel, the lives of its crew or the prospect of losing your license and livelihood?

Or is it the ease of communication with the other “driver?”

The bridge-to-bridge VHF radio is an enticing piece of gear as we approach another vessel.  It allows us to ask what the other vessel is going to do – or as is so frequently stated, “What are your intentions?”  It should be assumed that the intent of the other vessel is to follow the collision regulations (COLREGS).  Yet, we so frequently ask those four words.

Those four words on the VHF that are doing three things.  

First, we are taking up precious time.  Time that might be spent taking action, “made in ample time and with due regard to the observance of good seamanship.”  Second, we are introducing the possibility of miscommunication into the situation.  While English is the official language for bridge-to-bridge communications, there are many deck officers standing watches that are not fully conversant in it.  A communication that is either misspoken or misunderstood can lead to vessels taking the incorrect action.  Thirdly and lastly, we are frequently asking another vessel to depart from the rules.  While there are situations that might rightly require a deviation from COLREGS, we must also anticipate these and make the necessary allowances so that we can comply with COLREGS to the best of our ability.  If we cannot follow the rules by course change alone (or at all), there is always the possibility of adjusting speed – if we have planned for it.

There are some good parallels between driving your personal car and “driving” your ship, such as checking your mirrors (looking over your shoulder on the bridge) prior to changing lanes.  Another we should get used to might be actually following the rules of the road, not just trying to do whatever might be expedient in our situation.  Thankfully, we are are unable to take some of our bad habits from the ships to our cars – like the overuse of VHF radios in collision avoidance.

Let’s be safe out there.

Additional Reading and Links

USCG : Navigation Rules – International-Inland

An Investigation Into COLREGS and Their Applications At Sea

MCA MGN 324 (M+F) : Radio: Operational Guidance on the Use Of VHF Radio and Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) at Sea

NI Navigator – February 2013 : Avoiding Collisions


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