Before Thursday's collision, at least 3 other fatal accidents involving Duck vehicles had been reported since '99.
Before Thursday’s multiple-fatality collision in Seattle, at least three other fatal accidents involving Duck tourist vehicles had been reported nationally since 1999, federal records, news reports and interviews show.
The latest accident occurred in Philadelphia in May, when one of the amphibious military vehicles-turned-tourist conveyors struck and killed a Texas woman at a busy intersection during rush hour, news reports show. In 1999, 13 people drowned when a Duck sank in Arkansas due to a dislodged rubber seal.
Other serious-but-non-fatal Duck accidents have occurred in Boston, London and Liverpool, news reports show.
Such Duck-involved fatalities have periodically cast a pall over an otherwise jovial niche-tourist business that exploded in the 1990s and now has firms operating Ducks in cities nationwide.
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In Seattle, Ride the Ducks of Seattle, LLC — the local firm involved in Thursday’s fatal wreck on the Aurora Bridge — had claimed a relatively solid safety record, according to interviews with regulators, the company’s owner and former drivers.
Driver training “is generally quite good,” said Christian Holtz, a former Duck “captain” in Seattle who now works as a driver’s education instructor. “They do have a pretty rigorous safety program.”
But a local lawyer who represented a motorcyclist who says he was run over by a Duck in downtown Seattle four years ago warns the vehicles can be hazardous.
“These things have restricted sightlines, they’re big and they’re not super maneuverable,” said Steve Bulzomi, a personal-injury attorney based in Tacoma. “I personally don’t feel comfortable driving around them.”
Brian Tracey, owner of Ride the Ducks of Seattle, defended the company’s safety record after the tragedy. All of his Duck vehicles routinely “pass with flying colors” safety inspections conducted by the state and the Coast Guard, he said.
Records and interviews largely support Tracey’s statements.
The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission last inspected Ride the Ducks of Seattle in December 2012, giving the firm a “satisfactory” rating — the rating necessary for such passenger tour firms to operate in this state.
That review included checking that the company’s 35 drivers at the time had all required licenses and certifications, and that its 17 amphibious vehicles then operating were roadworthy.
“The company is very safety oriented and has retrofitted all vehicles/vessels with up to date vehicle components,” the inspector wrote.
The U.S. Coast Guard in Seattle also reported Thursday it annually inspects the company’s 20 Ducks now in operation to ensure they’re fit to operate in Lake Union. The agency has no record of any safety incident involving a Duck in Seattle waters, and a spokesman said Duck #6 — the vehicle involved in Thursday’s accident — was last inspected and approved for operations in March.
Albert Zakharenko, who drove a Duck for Tracey’s company for about a year, said Ride the Ducks takes safety and maintenance seriously.
Zakharenko noted he was fired in 2014 after a Duck he was piloting had a near- collision with a tugboat on Lake Union. “It was my fault, and I accepted it,” Zakharenko said.
Despite his dismissal, Zakharenko defended Tracey’s company.
“The guys who are running the preparation of new drivers, they do an amazing job,” he said. “You come in there, you don’t know how to drive this horrible vehicle, and after the training you are basically a pro.”
Bulzomi said that while representing his motorcyclist client, Austin Porter, “we found two or three rear-enders prior to ours.” The Seattle Times also has reported on at least three roadway accidents involving Ducks in recent years.
According to Porter’s lawsuit, he was stopped at a light at Third Avenue and Pike Street in Oct. 10, 2011, when a Duck struck him from behind, then drove over him and his bike.
“I can only say the case has been resolved,” said Bulzomi, who noted he is bound by a confidentiality restriction from detailing that resolution.
As a result of Porter’s lawsuit, Bulzomi did say Ride the Ducks agreed to install cameras on the front of each Duck so that drivers can see parts of the roadway on a monitor that otherwise could be obscured. Bulzomi said Tracey’s company didn’t agree to another of Porter’s requests, however: that Ride the Ducks hire separate tour guides so that drivers won’t be responsible for narrating tours while driving.
That issue is a legitimate safety concern, former driver Holtz said.
“When you’re operating as it usually is, the driver wears many different hats,” said Holtz, who captained a Duck from 2007 to 2009. “He’s an entertainer, he plays music, he tells jokes, and he does the driving.”
The city of San Francisco now bars tour drivers from also acting as narrators, after a motorized cable car hit and killed a woman there last year. Since approval of that law, which requires a different person to fill the tour guide’s role, the Duck tours in that city closed, citing a “challenging business environment.”
Other fatalities involving Ducks include a Duck being overrun by a tugboat-towed barge in 2010 in the Delaware River in Philadelphia, drowning two student tourists from Hungary.
Information in this article, originally published Sept. 24, 2015, was corrected Sept. 25, 2015. A previous version of this story misidentified a vehicle that was involved in a fatal accident in Canada. The “Lady Duck” tour vehicle that sank in Ottawa in 2002, killing four people, was a truck modified to float on water similar to Duck vehicle, but it was not an actual Duck.