Mobility and Transport


Safety of passenger ships

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 30 November 2017, a number of legislative texts that simplify and improve the common rules on safety of ships carrying passengers in EU waters were published in the Official Journal of the European Union. They had been adopted by the European Parliament on 4 October 2017 and the Council on 23 October 2017.

The new rules enter into force 20 days after publication. Member States then have 2 years to transpose the updated rules into national legislation and shall apply them from 21 December 2019.

The package is a result of proposals made by the European Commission in June 2016, as a follow-up to the recommendations of the fitness check driven by the Commission's Regulatory Fitness and Performance (REFIT) Programme.

The update 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 new rules will also provide for easier compliance by operators and better monitoring and enforcement for national competent authorities as well as the European Commission, assisted by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA). The key changes to the safety standards and requirements for passenger ships sailing in EU waters include:

See also: "Maritime Transport: Final adoption of the Passenger Ship Safety package" (23/10/2017)

Next steps

In the coming months, the Commission, assisted by the European Maritime Safety Agency, will follow-up on the remaining recommendations of the fitness check. In particular, it will:

  1. Finalise the 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 has enlarged its expert group on passenger ship safety to observers from stakeholder organisations.
    See also: "Consultation on common EU rules for small passenger ships" (25/07/2017 – 30/11/2017) and the roadmap.
  2. Continue to support a preparatory study to assess whether the specific EU damage stability requirements for ro-ro passenger ships should be aligned with those applicable at the global level (adopted on 16 June 2017 within the International Maritime Organisation, IMO).
    See also: "Maritime Transport: Commission welcomes international agreement to increase the safety of passenger ships" (16/06/2017)

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 inspections for ro-ro passenger ships and high-speed craft in regular service are in place (Directive (EU) 2017/2110 that has replaced and repealed 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 (Regulation (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 has recently completed an ex-post evaluation of the application of the Regulation and concluded that on the whole it has performed as expected and not proposed any changes to the Regulation. The Commission Staff Working Document, the support study and connected documents relating to the passenger liability regulation were published in October 2017.

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.