Duck tours have become a tourist staple to a number of cities across the United States and the UK. Using amphibious passenger vehicles called “ducks”, tour operators can take tourists on rides around a city, and then easily transition to waterways. The first duck tours began in 1946 at Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, using old military surplus vehicles. Since then, most tour operators have moved on to purpose-built amphibious tour buses. However, since 1999 the unique “duck” has been involved in boating accidents on and off the water. These tragic duck tales have put tour owners on the defensive, with advocates calling for an outright ban of the vehicles.
Weak federal oversight fails to prevent duck boating accidents
In 1999, a duck boat in Hot Springs, Arkansas sank within a minute of developing a serious list to port. Thirteen people drowned, unable to escape from the boat as it sank. Investigators focused on the overhead canopy of the duck boat; many of the victims were found trapped in the boat, likely by the canopy. Worse still, at the time life vests were not required to be worn by passengers as the duck traveled over water.
Three years later, another duck boat sinks in Canada’s Ottawa River. The Lady Duck took four passengers down with her. The victims were allegedly wearing seatbelts as the boat went under, as well as life jackets. As with the Hot Springs incident, the Lady Duck was also equipped with an overhead canopy. The converted Ford pickup truck was involved in a near-sinking the previous year. A combination of lax safety rules and regulations, and faulty equipment onboard the makeshift vessel ultimately contributed to the four deaths.
These two boating accidents were the start of increased scrutiny on amphibious passenger vehicles.
Tragedy on land
The design of duck boats have been called into question after accidents on the water, but recent incidents on dry land have put a more intense spotlight on the machines. Two prominent US accidents occurred in 2015.
A Texas woman died in May of that year, walking in front of a duck boat as it drove through Philadelphia’s Chinatown. While her own distraction contributed to the accident, the driver of the duck boat could not even see the pedestrian they hit. Critics have cited the massive driver blind spots as a reason why some duck boat designs are inherently dangerous on land.
Later in 2015, another duck boat operated out of Seattle, Washington lost control on the Aurora highway bridge. It crashed into a nearby passenger bus, killing five people. Eleven duck boat passengers were thrown free of the bus onto the freeway; federal law did not require duck boat passengers to wear seat belts while on land. Investigators discovered the left front axel of the duck boat had been completely sheared off.
Further investigations concluded that Ride the Ducks International, the company who manufactured the duck boat in the accident, were aware of serious defects in their design. Had they followed proper rules and regulations, the tragedy could have been prevented. Additionally, the company had not properly registered as a vehicle manufacturer, which allowed for serious gaps in federal oversight.
Weak oversight a continued concern
Duck boat operators continue to cite the safety rules they implement, and point to the reality that these accidents are rare compared to other forms of vehicle accidents. Critics continue to voice their concerns regarding what they feel are critical flaws in APV design, and a perceived lack of governmental response to these boating accidents. Many duck boats still suffer from large blind spots. While new technologies are being implemented to cover for this, this does not solve every problem they face.
Many duck boat operators now use specialized machines that are considerably more advanced than the original World War II designs. Despite this, these unique vehicles are still getting in boating accidents on and off the water. They are beholden to the rules of the road, but they are also required to deal with some laws of the sea. As demonstrated by the Seattle Aurora Bridge accident in 2015, some companies will violate the laws while seeking out pools of money to swim in.
It remains to be seen what will need to happen before the government aggressively engages duck boat operators and manufacturers.