What Are the “Rules of the Road” for Inland Waterways?

When vessels are navigating inland waterways, there’s a set of right-of-way rules that they’re supposed to follow. These rules, commonly known as the Rules of the Road, dictate how vessels should behave when crossing paths. The term “rules of the road” is used because the process is similar to the way that cars behave at unmarked intersections.

The Rules of the Road are published by the United States Government Printing Office and signs about them are available at any boating supply stores. While all vessels are required to post the Rules of the Road, any vessel that’s over 12 meters in length must display them.

Notably, there are multiple sets of rules that vessels must follow depending on what type of water they’re navigating.

Types of waterway rules include:

  • Inland rules apply to any vessels that are on inland waterways within the United States.
  • International rules apply to any vessel on waters connected to the high seas and is navigable by vessels that venture into them.
  • Great Lakes rules for vessels on the Great Lakes, their tributary waters.
  • Western river rules govern the Mississippi River and other waterways throughout the Western United States.

The Rules of the Road for Inland Water Navigation

First, the summary below will only provide a brief overview of some of the rules of the road for inland waterways. To get a complete understanding of the rules, you should visit the United States Coast Guard’s official document about them.

Getting started with the rules of the road involves understanding the two categories a vessel falls under because of them. First, there are the give-way vessels. These are the vessels that must let others pass if the rules of the road dictate that they should. Operators of these vessels must make sure they maneuver them in a way that lets the other vessel safely pass. This could mean changing directions, slowing down, or stopping a course completely until it’s safe to proceed. Importantly, give-way vessels are referred to as the “burdened” vessel as they’re responsible for avoiding an accident.

The other vessel type that the rules of the road refer to are those known as stand-on vessels. A stand-on vessel has the right to proceed when encountering another vessel. However, it’s the responsibility of this vessel to acknowledge the give-way vessel’s intended actions. Notably, stand-on vessels must maintain their speed and course so nearby give-way vessels can predict what they're doing.

How to Determine If a Vessel Is Stand-On of Give-Way

Determining if a vessel is one that gives way or stands on is done by following an ordered list. Essentially, every vessel must give way to any vessel above it on this list.

The vessel order for the rules of the road is as follows:

  • Overtaken vessels (if a vessel is passing another, it must avoid hitting the vessel it is overtaking)
  • Vessels not under command
  • Vessels with restricted maneuverability
  • Vessels constrained by draft (a power-driven vessel that’s restricted from quickly changing course because of its draft in the depth and width of the water)
  • Fishing vessels in the act of fishing
  • Sailing vessels
  • Power-driven vessels

What If It Isn’t Clear What Either Vessel Should Do?

Sometimes, it isn’t always obvious which vessel is the stand-on and which one is the give-way. For example, if two sailboats are heading toward each other, their operators might be uncertain what they should do because both have the same rank on the list above. In these instances, also known as meeting situations, both vessels should change their course to starboard to ensure they turn in opposite directions and avoid a collision.

If two vessels are about to cross paths while heading in different directions and both fall under the same category listed above, the vessel that has the other on the starboard side is required to become the give-way vessel and slow down, turn, or prevent a collision in any other way.

When the Rules of the Road Are Ignored

One example of the importance of the Rules of the Road can be seen with a case that our offshore injury lawyers worked on and secured a victory on behalf of a crab fisherman.

Our client was working in southern Louisiana when he was T-boned by a BOPCO employee in the inland waters of Point a la Hache, Louisiana. BOPCO, a subsidiary of a large Fort Worth energy company, has oil and gas wells in inland marshes and hires operators to travel from well to well for monitoring. The BOPCO employee was traveling on a boat toward the company's dock and collided with our client's vessel at the intersection of two canals. Our client required back surgery after the crash.

An interesting aspect of this case involved the application of the Rules of the Road.

In our case, the rules showed our client had the right of way. But BOPCO disagreed and offered $0 to settle the case before trial. Instead, it argued that our client was to blame for driving too fast, not maintaining a proper lookout, and driving on the wrong side of the canal—each of these accusations completely irrelevant when determining what vessel is supposed to give the right of way to the other under the rules. In fact, in this instance, the other side was accusing our client of fulfilling his obligations under maritime law!

The company also argued that our client was not seriously injured in the incident, did not need surgery, and had a normal MRI. Finally, BOPCO attempted to take advantage of a maritime law called the Limitation of Liability Act to cap its damages at $45,000 (the value of its boat).

We were able to show these arguments were wrong and prove BOPCO was at fault and that our client sustained serious injuries. The pretrial offer was zero. The jury awarded $1.1 million in total damages.

If you’ve been involved with a vessel collision that you weren’t responsible for preventing under the rules, call Arnold & Itkin LLP today at (888) 346-5024 for a free consultation.

Contact Us

Get a Completely Free Evaluation of Your Case

  • Please enter your first name.
  • Please enter your last name.
  • Please enter your email address.
    This isn't a valid email address.
  • Please enter your phone number.
    This isn't a valid phone number.
  • Please make a selection.
  • Please make a selection.
  • Please enter a message.