With their festive, party-like ambiance and ability to travel on land and in water, duck boats have long been tourist attractions for sightseers around the U.S. But a string of deadly accidents has left the industry reeling, forced safety improvements and led some advocates to call for a total ban on the vehicles.
In Seattle, after five college students were killed in a 2015 duck boat collision with a bus, the company pulled half its fleet out of service. In Philadelphia, a duck boat operator suspended its tours indefinitely after three people were killed in two separate crashes. And in Boston, new safety regulations are set to go into effect in April after a duck boat ran over and killed a 28-year-old woman last spring.
Boston has a special fondness for duck boats, which have become a mainstay of parades celebrating sports championships. Earlier this month, two dozen duck boats carried the New England Patriots through the streets of Boston for a “rolling rally” to celebrate the team’s Super Bowl win.
“We believe that duck boats in their current design should be banned,” said Ivan Warmuth, the father of Allison Warmuth, who was killed on April 30, 2016, when a duck boat ran her over on her motor scooter.
Duck boats were originally used by the U.S. military in World War II to transport troops and supplies over land and water, most famously during the invasion of Normandy in 1944. They were later modified for use as sightseeing vehicles. There are now about 130 duck boats operating in more than a dozen U.S. cities, including Boston, Seattle, Miami, San Diego, Honolulu and Washington.
Critics say the 21/2-ton amphibious passenger vehicles are inherently dangerous because their design creates numerous blind spots for drivers, who sit 10 to 12 feet behind the bow, making it difficult to see directly below and in front of them.
Allison Warmuth’s parents have pushed the industry to adopt new safety measures. They successfully lobbied for a Massachusetts law that requires duck boats to have blind spot cameras and proximity sensors. The new law also requires a second employee – separate from the driver – to narrate the tours.
Kevan Moniri, who was on the scooter with Warmuth, recalls seeing the duck boat accelerate behind them when a light turned green, then realizing the driver did not see them. Video examined by the National Transportation Safety Board showed the driver taking his eyes off the road and turning in his seat to point out landmarks during the tour.
“I hear again and again from Boston Duck Tours and any of these other companies that safety is their No. 1 priority, and if that’s the case, you can’t argue that the safest way to operate the vehicles is for the driver to also be giving the tour,” Moniri said.
Ten weeks after Warmuth was killed, a New Jersey woman was struck and seriously injured by a duck boat at another Boston intersection.
Boston Duck Tours chief executive officer Cindy Brown said the company “places a premium on the safety of its passengers” and touted additional cameras, a second person to narrate tours and new back-up sensors.
Safety advocates have sought improvements since 1999, when 13 people died after a duck boat sank near Hot Springs, Arkansas.
In the past seven years, a series of accidents have claimed lives, including a 2010 collision between a stalled duck boat in the Delaware River and a tug-boat guided barge, which killed two Hungarian tourists; a 2015 crash that killed a Texas woman as she crossed a Philadelphia street; and the 2015 collision in Seattle.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration determined the front axle on the Seattle duck boat broke, causing the driver to lose control. The manufacturer agreed to pay up to $1 million after NHTSA said it violated federal laws when it failed to notify regulators of a safety defect in the axle and did not issue a full recall.
The operator of the Philadelphia duck boat tours suspended operations indefinitely in October, citing a 330 percent increase in its insurance premiums.
Critics say part of the problem is that a myriad of agencies regulate duck boats, including the U.S. Coast Guard, NHTSA, and cities and states with varying safety requirements.
Ride the Ducks of Seattle stopped using its older “stretch ducks” after the accident and is now only using newer “truck ducks,” said spokesman Mark Firmani. The company also added 365-degree video coverage and a second employee to narrate tours, he said.
Stacey Soto’s mother, 63-year-old Rosemary Hamelburg, died in 2003 after falling backward off a duck boat onto a Boston parking lot. Soto said that despite being longtime Patriots season ticket holders, her family has been unable to enjoy the team’s victory rallies.
“None of us can watch any of the duck boat parades,” she said. “It’s too painful.”
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