An analysis of the factors inhibiting ECDIS from effectually achieving its intended primary function of contributing to safe navigation

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This research is contextualised in the maritime domain, where since the introduction of legislation mandating the carriage of Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems (ECDIS) by merchant vessels, evidence has emerged of unintended consequences of this legislation – which threaten the safety of navigation. The real-time presentation of information displayed by ECDIS should improve deck officers’ cognitive assessment of their navigational situation, yet the terms ‘ECDIS-assisted accidents’ and ‘ECDIS-assisted groundings’ have of late become part of maritime terminology. This dissertation presents an analysis of the factors inhibiting ECDIS from effectually achieving its intended primary function of contributing to safe navigation. Applicable legislation is identified and case studies are used to scrutinise the efficacy of the current legal framework regulating the use of ECDIS. The potentially unsafe technical operational aspects and limitations of ECDIS are analysed and the human factor and human error in the use of ECDIS are critically evaluated. Current industry initiatives to improve the safety of navigation with ECDIS are outlined and additional measures to mitigate unsafe practices in the use of ECDIS by deck officers are considered. This research finds that despite an apparently robust legal framework regulating the use of ECDIS, the current legislative provisions do not appear to be effective in preventing ECDIS-assisted accidents, particularly vessel groundings. It is found that ECDIS training has not been sufficiently integrated into the STCW Code and express provisions mandating how ECDIS should be used as an aid to navigation are inadequate. Overreliance is identified as a primary risk in the use of ECDIS, as it significantly reduces navigational safety. ECDIS is an aid to navigation and must be used in conjunction with traditional watchkeeping skills and the practices of good seamanship. Given that most maritime casualties are caused by human error, measures to address the human factor should be embedded into ECDIS pedagogy. Instead of fulfilling its primary function of improving the safety of navigation, the use of ECDIS can in fact reduce situational awareness by distracting navigators from looking out of the bridge windows. This research concludes that in the case of ECDIS, the introduction of technology intended to reduce human error in shipboard operations has inadvertently created new error sources. Improved training methods are required to address these types of technologically-generated error pathways.