Voyage Data recorders (VDrs) and Simplified Voyage Data recorders (S-VDrs) are marine equivalents of the “black boxes” that are used aboard aircraft. They collect specified information from various sources on board the vessel, which is useful in investigating casualties (e.g. information about the vessel’s position, movement, physical status, command and control) and they store that information in a secure and retrievable form. A VDr stores more detailed data than does an S-VDr.

After the ferry QUEEN OF THE NORTH sank in British Columbia in 2006, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada recommended extending Canadian requirements for the installation of VDRs and SVDRs on passenger vessels of over 500 gross tons and all other commercial vessels on an equivalent basis to those trading internationally. Transport Canada Marine Safety studied the TSB’s recommendation and consulted widely with stakeholders, through national and regional meetings of the Canadian Marine Advisory Council (CMAC), as to the merits of the proposal and related costs and benefits. Proposed Voyage Data Recorder Regulations were then published in Part 1 of the Canada Gazette on November 6, 2010, triggering a 30-day period for representations from the public, following which final publication is planned, to bring the Regulations into force.

The Regulations apply in respect of Canadian vessels everywhere and foreign vessels in Canadian waters that are engaged in the coasting trade. They do not apply, however, in respect of: a) pleasure craft; b) vessels having no mechanical means of propulsion; or c) vessels that are on location and engaged in the exploration or drilling for, or the production, conservation or processing of, oil or gas, as defined in sect. 2 of the Canada Oil and Gas Operations Act, in an area described in paragraph 3(a) or (b) of that Act.

The Regulations require that:

  • New passenger vessels (i.e. vessels constructed on or after January 1, 2011) of 500 gross tons or more and new cargo vessels (constructed on or after that same date) of 3,000 gross tons or more which are not engaged solely on inland voyages, be fitted with a VDR .  
  • Existing passenger vessels (i.e. vessels constructed before January 1, 2011) of 500 gross tons or more be fitted with either a VDR or an S-VDR by July 1, 2014.
  • Canadian vessels engaged on international voyages be fitted with VDR’s, in accordance with certain provisions of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).  

The SOLAS Convention requires all passenger vessels and all cargo vessels over 3,000 gross tons to be fitted with a VDR when engaged on an international voyage. Cargo vessels constructed before July 1, 2002, may be fitted with a VDR or an S-VDR. Transport Canada may consider applications for exemptions from these SOLAS requirements, on a case-by-case basis, pursuant to the Marine Technical Review Board process.  

The Regulations do not apply to domestic cargo vessels constructed before January 1, 2011 or to cargo vessels operating solely on inland voyages. This reflects the concerns of cargo vessel representatives over costs, fleet age and worries about the competitive disadvantages with U.S. counterparts who would not face the same requirement when operating on the Great Lakes or the St. Lawrence Seaway. Some seasonally operated vessels are also exempt.

VDRs and S-VDRs must be installed, maintained and tested annually according to Testing Guidelines, so as to minimize malfunction. All reasonable steps must be taken to maintain these devices in good working order, the master being responsible for restoring them to good working order as soon as feasible when necessary. A maintenance record for the VDR or S-VDR must be kept on board the vessel, showing the periodic testing and servicing; the defects; the repairs and parts replacements; and the relevant dates, locations and personnel. A certificate of compliance issued by the party who carried out the most recent performance test, which states the date of compliance and the applicable performance standards, must also be kept on board the vessel, as well as documentation necessary to ensure that the device can be maintained in good working order. The “authorized representative” of a vessel must ensure that the requirements of the Regulations are met.

Enforcement of the Regulations will be through inspections by Transport Canada marine safety inspectors. Contraventions will be punishable by fines of not more than $1 million or imprisonment for a term of not more than 18 months, or both.

The primary purpose of the Regulations, of course, is to foster greater marine safety in Canadian waters, by reducing the frequency of marine accidents, saving lives and protecting the environment. Additionally, it is hoped that the VDR/S-VDR requirements will reduce costly vessel repairs and lost opportunity costs, as well as lower insurance premiums, save investigation time for the Transportation Safety Board and cut litigation costs. The new rules, it is hoped, will also meet public expectations relating to transportation safety on Canadian waters.