Thanks to Space Review for this:
Figurative “rules of the road” actually predate roads and have evolved over centuries for boats and ships traveling on water. This long history of maritime navigation, particularly on the international high seas, likely makes it another good potential analogue for outer space traffic management (OSTM).
Certain basic rules always apply, such as an international rule that “every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means” to avoid collisions.
The 1982 Law of the Seas treaty calls for, among other things, ships to be seaworthy, be registered, have trained crews, use signals to avoid collisions, and to reduce and control marine pollution as much as possible.
A general hierarchy applies to the right of way: an overtaken vessel has top priority down to power driven vessels having the lowest priority. Similarly, motor boats should yield to rowing shells. In other words, as in other domains, more capable vessels yield to less capable ones.
An interesting facet of situational awareness capability as it relates to maritime navigation is self-identification. Historically, ships have flown flags of their countries of registration and, more recently, the electronic Automatic Identification System (AIS) for ships has become widely used. AIS uses VHF transponders onboard the ship so they are self-identifying and communicating. AIS not only identifies a ship, it also delivers navigation information to nearby users. The information enables the operators to communicate and coordinate their navigation intentions directly with one another. The benefit of direct operational communications is to enable efficiency and accuracy during time critical events. Of course, the point of this communication is to avoid maritime collisions, which would damage the marine environment and potentially cause human injuries or even deaths.
The legal frameworks regarding shipwrecks is interesting. The Nairobi International Convention on the Removal of Wrecks, which went into force in 2015, addresses 3 basic questions: who is responsible for a wreck, what measures can be taken based on that responsibility, and how can the responsibility be enforced? In short, the convention mandates that ship owners are financially liable for wrecks, whether they pose a navigational or environmental hazard, and requires them to have insurance to cover the costs of wreck removal. Generally speaking, if a shipowner does not adequately or promptly mark or remove a wreck, the relevant coastal nation can do so at the registered owner’s expense. While the US is not a signatory to this convention, the 1987 Abandoned Shipwreck Act provides authority for the relevant coastal state to handle wrecks. Canada is a signatory to the Nairobi convention and, additionally, under Canadian law, if the owner is unable financially to pay for removal of a shipwreck, there is a “fund of last resort” for marine oil spills that potentially could be used.
In this context, shipwrecks are analogous to orbital debris, with which operators obviously want to avoid colliding, and thus perhaps new kinds of financial incentives to remediate orbital debris are needed. One legal scholar notes that not only do maritime salvage principles apply to space debris in the limited sense that actively removing debris would protect the owner of the debris from third-party liability, but that the 1989 Salvage Convention explicitly permits salvors to remove wrecks to prevent or minimize environmental damage, a direct parallel to the global commons of space.
International maritime collision avoidance regulations (COLREGs) were last updated in 1972 and took effect in 1977 after problems with traffic separation in the English Channel. From 1956 to 1960, there were 60 collisions in the Channel. In 1967, a new traffic separation scheme became voluntary and in 1971 the International Maritime Organization passed a resolution making it mandatory. After the new regulations took effect, the number of Channel collisions dropped significantly.
An important consideration for how travel is governed on waterways is that US Coast Guard navigation “rules do not grant privileges or rights, they impose responsibilities and require precaution under all conditions and circumstances.”
Thus prudence, common sense, and prioritizing safety should prevail so that all boats and ships may share waterways, a common resource.