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Safety of passenger ships

Passenger ships play an important role in the mobility of EU citizens - more than 400 million people pass every year through EU ports, with 120 million passengers being transported between ports of the same Member State.

EU legislation on passenger ship safety has been put in place over time following accidents such as the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise in 1987 and the Estonia in 1994, which resulted in the loss of 193 and 852 lives respectively. It complements international and national standards, provides for safer ships and more efficient handling of ship accidents.

Review of EU rules on passenger ship safety

On 6 June 2016, the Commission adopted a number of legislative proposals to simplify and improve the common rules on safety of ships carrying passengers in EU waters. The review is a response to lessons learnt, including from accidents, and technological progress. Its aim is to enhance safety and ensure that the competition takes place on equal footing. It does so by making the rules clearer, simpler and up-to-date with legal and technological developments.

The key changes to the safety standards and requirements for passenger ships sailing in EU waters include:

The review delivers on the recommendations of the fitness check driven by the Commission's Regulatory Fitness and Performance (REFIT ) Programme. The fitness check showed that the EU passenger ship safety legislation has resulted in improved safety of life but there is  scope to remove outdated, ambiguous or disproportionate requirements, and to further improve the effectiveness of search and rescue operations. Results of the fitness check and the corresponding follow-up actions were described in the Commission's report , including the proposals for a review of EU rules on passenger ship safety, further detailed in the roadmap .

See also: "European Commission adopts proposals to simplify and improve passenger ship safety rules" (6/06/2016)

Next steps

In the coming months, the Commission, assisted by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA ), will follow-up on the remaining recommendations of the fitness check, namely :

  • At international level, the Commission will continue striving to improve the IMO rules for passenger ships in a damaged condition so that they remain longer afloat and allow safe return to port. Besides ro-ro passenger ships (already regulated in the EU), such upgrade would also increase the damage stability of cruise ships. The results of international debate [in the course of 2016] will determine further EU action in this respect.
  • At EU level, the Commission will initiate a development of a new framework of goal-based standards for small passenger ships (i.e. smaller than 24m) built from innovative materials such as fibre-reinforced plastic, in view of creating a European market.
    To support next steps and facilitate the exchange of views with national administrations, industry stakeholders and passenger associations, the Commission calls for applications of stakeholder organisations as observers to the expert group on passenger ship safety . The call is open until 1 August 2016.

EU passenger ship safety legislation

The most extensive EU legislative instrument is Directive 2009/45/EC , which covers passenger ships made of steel or equivalent material and high speed craft on domestic voyages. Where applicable and feasible, it is based on internationally agreed standards, namely the International Convention for the Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS ), establishing detailed technical requirements on vessel construction, stability, fire protection and life-saving equipment. It also includes specific access and public information requirements for persons with reduced mobility or disabilities.

In addition, Directive 2003/25/EC  provides for additional measures for ro-ro passenger vessels throughout the Union, engaged on both international and domestic voyages, to ensure their stability following damage. Moreover, specific EU rules governing the mandatory surveys for ro-ro passenger ships and high-speed craft operating on regular international or domestic service to or from EU ports are in place (Directive 1999/35/EC ). Shipping companies also need to comply with the requirements of Directive 98/41/EC  on registration of persons on board, in order to make search and rescue operations more effective and to facilitate proper management of the consequences of any accident (medical care, insurance, etc.).

Passenger carriers' liability

Passengers involved in maritime accidents must have an adequate level of compensation for any loss or damage they suffer. To ensure this, ship owners must have appropriate insurance arrangements in place.

The Regulation  on the liability of carriers of passengers by sea in the event of accidents ((EC) 392/2009) lays down harmonised rules on liability and insurance for shipping companies and aims at an adequate level of compensation should an accident occur. This applies irrespective of the area of operation of the vessel, thus to all carriers engaging in international carriage, including between EU Member States, and certain types of domestic carriage (over 5 miles from the coastline). Passengers may claim compensation for death or personal injury, loss or damage to luggage or valuables, vehicle and mobility or other special equipment, provided that one of the following requirements are fulfilled:

  • the ship flies the flag of a Member State or is registered in a Member State, or
  • the carriage agreement was concluded in a Member State, or
  • the point of departure and/or destination specified in the carriage agreement are located in a Member State

Enforcement of the rights and obligations under the Regulation relies mainly on flag State and port State control, and the relevant systems available in the EU.

The Commission is currently evaluating the application of the Regulation (Roadmap published on 28/09/2015).

Key documents

Evaluation of Regulation (EC) 392/2009

Review of EU rules on passenger ship safety

REFIT – Adjusting Course: EU Passenger Ship Safety Legislation Fitness Check


Expert Group


If you have any questions about the EU passenger ship safety legislation, please send an email to the Passenger Ship Safety Mailbox.