WJ Editorial
WJ Editorial

How The Subchapter M Sausage Was Made

July 19 marks the “final” deadline for all inland vessels to have certificates of inspection documenting their compliance with Subchapter M. The reason we put “final” in quotation marks is that actual compliance of all vessels with all of the Subchapter M requirements was supposed to be complete by July 19, 2018. However, the burden of issuing all those COIs was spread out and phased in in several stages, for the benefit of both industry and the Coast Guard. 

All vessels are required to be certificated as of July 19. The discussions and industry-government cooperation are still ongoing as vessels navigate into the next stage of Sub M: hull inspections at shipyards.  

It was German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck who made the famous if cynical remark that anyone who likes sausages and laws should not look too closely into how either are made. This may be one of those famous sayings that no longer applies. 

In Bismarck’s time, much lawmaking in most countries was done behind closed doors, away from the public’s eye.  Today, the crafting of laws and regulations is much more collaborative and transparent than it was back in the day, almost everywhere. The discussions between industry and the Coast Guard that led to the development of Subchapter M regulations began in 2000 and were conducted in many forums and meetings, both formal and informal, and by many people. 

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The industry itself has been an important driver for its own regulation, especially through the American Waterways Operators, but also in other arenas. Current AWO CEO Jennifer Carpenter has spent much of her professional career on Subchapter M, making it a top priority for the association. As she has said, “Towing vessel inspection did not come about because of an accident. It’s a very positive thing, a cooperative and collaborative alliance between the Coast Guard and industry.” The AWO’s Responsible Carrier program even went beyond Sub M’s requirements in some instances. One focus of the AWO has been making sure that Sub M regulations are interpreted the same way from one Coast Guard district to another. 

The Towing Safety Advisory Committee has been an important forum, as have other advisory committees and industry forums. Many industry professionals have spent thousands and thousands of unpaid volunteer hours serving on those committees, speaking with Coast Guard representatives, raising issues and concerns and otherwise serving their industry and the cause of better safety and efficiency on our waterways. 

It took a lot of collective guts for the towing industry to voluntarily come forward and ask for regulation, knowing the long journey ahead of it and the costs and burdens companies would incur, including smaller operators with proud legacies. The same guts motivated the industry’s proposal to tax itself through the fuel tax that supports the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. That boldness and willingness to be accountable helped the industry accumulate capital with the regulating agencies when it came time to work with them, and on occasion to challenge them when necessary. The entire towing industry has been actively involved, in one way or another, in bringing Subchapter M to completion, with improved safety for all being the ultimate goal.