NOAA electronic navigational charts reduce accidents and provide benefits, study finds

A nautical chart is one of the most fundamental tools available to the mariner. For nearly two centuries, they have provided the critical information for safe and efficient use of our nation’s waterways and for protection of our marine environment. Needless to say that most, if not all mariners have held a nautical chart in their hands, relying on the data to help them navigate safely. That confidence, the ability to avoid accidents, injury, and damage to property, has value, and this value provides the justification for chart production.

Today, NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey – the agency responsible for U.S. nautical chart production – is moving away from traditional paper nautical chart products and is focusing production efforts on its premier charting product, the NOAA electronic navigational chart (NOAA ENC). Originally designed for large commercial vessels, ENCs are now widely used within simpler electronic chart systems on many types of ships and by recreational boaters often using tablets or smartphones. Recognizing the increased use of ENCs and the importance of compatibility and efficiency across platforms, Coast Survey is also engaging in a multi-year ENC improvement program to standardize ENC layout and scales

NOAA ENC visible on a portable tablet on the bridge of a ship while navigating on the Mississippi River.
New Orleans Baton Rouge Pilots navigate using electronic navigational charts on the Mississippi River.

Investing in and transitioning to an ENC-only production model has left Coast Survey with a big question; can the value of ENCs be quantified? A recent study, Gross Benefit Estimates From Reductions In Allisions, Collisions And Groundings Due To Electronic Navigational Charts published in the Journal of Coastal and Ocean Economics, found that NOAA ENC indeed reduce accidents, and when coupled with additional navigation tools, are even more effective. The authors, Wolfe and Pacheco, provide the following analysis and results in their baseline study.

Scope of analysis
Concentrating on the 2005 to 2017 timeframe, the study examines the rates of marine accidents (allisions, collisions and groundings (ACG)) with respect to availability of navigational aids including NOAA ENC and NOAA’s Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System (PORTS®). PORTS is an information system that measures and disseminates oceanographic (water levels, tides, currents, waves, salinity, bridge air gap) and meteorological (winds, atmospheric pressure, air and water temperatures) data that mariners need to navigate safely. The authors based this study on the evaluation of ACG occurrences per vessel transit at specific locations that occurred over time in the presence of PORTS® installations and releases of NOAA ENC.

Locations with PORTS and updated ENCs present
At locations where PORTS had been installed and all types of ENCs had been released during the 2005 to 2017 study period, employing the average cost of an allision against the portion of total allisions that are explained by the total number of all ENC chart updates suggests an annual benefit of about $18.1 million (in 2017 dollars).  The same procedure for collisions and groundings suggests annual benefits in excess of $6.3 and $3.1 million dollars, respectively. Collectively for all three ACG types, total annual benefit approximated $27.6 million (in 2017 dollars). Over ten years this would approach $248 million.[1]

Locations without PORTS but updated ENCs present
At locations where no PORTS had ever been installed, cases where updates of all chart types had occurred as well as releases of overview charts were both seen to have a significant reductive influence on groundings with annual benefits of $1.6 million and $1.8 million for all chart and overview chart updates, respectively.  While allisions and collisions suggested annual benefits, neither was statistically significant at the 0.05 level and were not included in final benefit estimations.  Total annual benefits from all sources exceeded $29 million – equal to about $262 million over a ten-year period.

Importance of understanding the benefits of NOAA ENC
Determining how much charting activities are “worth” can assist the government in determining the priority of these programs in the appropriations process, and the level of investment that best benefits the nation. Additionally, quantifying the benefits of nautical charting helps establish an investment strategy that can assist in prioritizing locations and periodicity of future ENC updates as well as suggesting locations for additional PORTS installations.

[1] Employing a 2.1 percent discount rate for a ten-year project.  Source: Office of Management and Budget, Circular Number A-94, November 2018.

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