A three-month state investigation launched after September’s deadly crash on the Aurora Bridge recommends that Ride the Ducks be allowed to return to service with half its amphibious-vehicle fleet.

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By the end of January, 10 amphibious Duck vehicles could be back in service, once again carrying tourists across Seattle streets and Lake Union a little more than four months after a wreck on the Aurora Bridge killed five people and injured scores of others.

That’s the top recommendation from a three-month state investigation of Ride the Ducks of Seattle, a probe launched after one of the excursion company’s vehicles caused September’s deadly crash.

In a staff report released Tuesday, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) recommended that Ride the Ducks be allowed to return half its amphibious-vehicle fleet to service so long as it meets a list of conditions.

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Brian Tracey, owner of Ride the Ducks of Seattle, makes his case for why the excursion company should be allowed to operate again. (Lewis Kamb / The Seattle Times)
Phuong Dinh, who was injured in the Aurora Bridge crash, says she doesn't want to see Ride the Ducks' vehicles on Seattle streets. (Lewis Kamb / The Seattle Times)

Chief among them: The company must correct some 442 violations of motor-carrier safety rules or laws identified by investigators.

Overall, the state’s latest compliance review resulted in a proposed “unsatisfactory” safety rating for Ride the Ducks, the first substandard rating it has received in 12 years of inspections.

The latest rating is largely based on violations of one acute and six critical regulations in 2014 and 2015, as well as two recordable accidents this year, the report said.

But the report also found each of the company’s 10 “Truck Duck” vehicles passed federal Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance inspections, and it noted that carriers that receive a proposed unsatisfactory safety rating “are generally allowed to operate” during a 45-day period given to correct identified problems.

Truck Ducks are modern versions of the WWII-era “Stretch Ducks,” which make up the other half of the Seattle fleet.

The agency recommended that UTC commissioners levy an unspecified amount of fines against the company for violations. The commission is allowed to penalize Ride the Ducks up to $1,000 per violation.

Commissioners are expected to publicly discuss the report and decide whether the company will be allowed to return any of its Ducks to service during a hearing set for Dec. 21.

Operations suspended

The UTC, which regulates excursion service carriers statewide, suspended operations of Ride the Ducks four days after the Sept. 24 crash while the agency investigated.

Five international students were killed and dozens more people injured after a Duck vehicle lost control and crashed into an oncoming bus chartered by North Seattle College. In a preliminary report, federal investigators determined a defective axle on the Duck, which was the subject of a service bulletin recommending repairs, caused the wreck.

On Monday — a day before the UTC released its findings — Ride the Ducks owner Brian Tracey made his case as to why his business, which has operated since 1997, deserves a second chance.

Since the crash, Tracey said, his company has made additional safety improvements, has cooperated with four investigations, and has vowed to follow any UTC recommendations.

“I can personally guarantee you there will not be a Duck on the road that I would not put my grandchildren on ever as long as I live,” said Tracey, who also issued a statement Tuesday after the report’s release.

As part of its probe, the UTC examined the company’s operations, inspected its fleet of vehicles, and also reviewed whether the firm received and responded to the October 2013 service bulletin from Atlanta-based Ride the Ducks International, which previously had sold several Stretch Ducks to the Seattle company.

Duck No. 6, the vehicle that crashed, was among 10 Stretch Ducks operating in Seattle. Unlike Truck Ducks, which are modern vehicles built from scratch to replicate the original World War II amphibious vehicles, Stretch Ducks include part of the original WWII-era vehicles’ frames.

The UTC’s inquiry found the Seattle firm had received the bulletin and sought to comply by “conducting daily visual inspections of the wheels on each vehicle during pre-trip inspections, including checking for any vertical canting of the front wheels.”

The crew “observed no canting and therefore took no further action regarding the bulletin,” the report added. UTC inspectors also inspected the Stretch Ducks and “identified no apparent damage to any of the axles or axle housings.”

But state inspectors also determined “small metal plates had been welded to each front wheel axle housing on three of the ‘Stretch Duck’ vehicles,” the report said.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators have found the ill-fated Duck No. 6 also had a plate welded to its axle.

“NTSB staff informed commission investigators that beginning in 2003, Ride the Ducks International welded these plates to ‘Stretch Duck’ axles prior to selling the vehicles to Ride the Ducks franchises,” the report said.

The report doesn’t explain whether the weld had any significance in the crash.

Ride the Ducks has since hired a specialist to evaluate the front-axle housings on each of its 10 Stretch Ducks, the UTC report said.

“The company has pledged that it will not operate the ‘Stretch Duck’ vehicles until this evaluation is complete and any recommendations are implemented,” the report said. “Commission staff supports this approach.”

Minor problems

The UTC’s 33-page report noted the majority of identified violations were minor record-keeping problems. The single violation of an acute regulation involved allowing a Duck captain to drive a vehicle on 11 occasions in 2015 after his commercial vehicle driver’s license had been deactivated due to a lapsed medical certificate.

Among the six critical regulation violations identified were the firm’s failure to conduct random alcohol testing of drivers; allowing 14 drivers to violate on 35 occasions a 70-hour limit for working within eight consecutive days; and failing to maintain a medical examiner’s certificate in a driver’s qualification file.

During inspections of the 10 Truck Ducks, state inspectors found one significant mechanical finding — a cracked tie rod end grease boot that has since been repaired.

The report recommended all Truck Ducks resume operations so long as the company meets several conditions, including implementing a written safety management plan and correcting identified violations by Jan. 29.

“If Ride the Ducks does not meet those requirements, the company will be put out of service,” UTC staff said in a statement released Tuesday.

The report also recommended inspectors conduct follow-up reviews of the company in six months, a year and two years.

Before Tuesday’s report, four other UTC investigations of Ride the Ducks dating to 2003 had all resulted in “satisfactory” ratings. The 442 violations cited in the report were identified since the state’s last inspection in late 2012, a UTC spokeswoman said.

Since the crash, at least three victims — two students who survived and the estate of another who was killed — have sued the company, and Ride the Ducks is bracing for potentially dozens more lawsuits.

Four agencies — the UTC, the NTSB, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Seattle Police Department — also have opened investigations while the company’s future remains in limbo, Tracey said Monday.

“I have 130 people whose livelihoods depend on this company,” he said. “Christmas is coming up. They’re terrified. They don’t know if they’re going to have enough money, not only to buy Christmas presents, but to eat. I’ve had to lay off several people during the course of this, while we’re waiting for the UTC to make a decision.”