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Experts raise questions about duck boats’ blind spots

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Critics are raising concerns about the safety of duck boats on Boston’s streets after a woman on a scooter was killed in a fatal crash Saturday with one of the vehicles.
Critics are raising concerns about the safety of duck boats on Boston’s streets after a woman on a scooter was killed in a fatal crash Saturday with one of the vehicles.(Suzanne Kreiter)

The fatal crash between a duck boat and a woman on a scooter near Boston Common Saturday has raised concerns about the safety of the large, amphibious vehicles, particularly of the sightlines for drivers who tower above traffic on busy city streets.

"Anybody can see that the duck boat has a blind spot," said Peter Furth, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University. "The driver is up high and there's some structure of the boat blocking the view of what's down on the ground right in front of them."

Robert J. Mongeluzzi, a lawyer who represents the family of a woman who was fatally struck by a duck boat managed by a Philadelphia-based company last year, said drivers cannot see significant areas directly in front and behind the vehicle.

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"There's no way to make an overly large, World War II military weapon with blind spots safe to drive on city streets," he said.

The concerns emerged as records released Monday showed that the man driving the duck boat in Saturday's fatal crash has an extensive record of driving violations over the past two decades, including 10 speeding citations.

Victor Tavares was also ticketed for several other moving violations and determined to be at fault in a 2003 accident, according to records from the Registry of Motor Vehicles. The following year, Tavares was required to take a safety class because he had accumulated at least five citations, records show.

Tavares was also cited twice for "failure to use safety," a broad category of violations, and once for a "right of way at intersection" offense.

His license was suspended indefinitely while authorities investigate the fatal collision, which left the scooter crushed under the driver's side front wheel. Allison Warmuth, a 28-year-old insurance underwriter who had been riding in Beacon Hill, was killed.

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Boston police and the Suffolk District Attorney's office are investigating the crash. No charges have been filed against Tavares. He could not be reached for comment Monday.

Officials with Boston Duck Tours, the company that operated the tour vehicle, stressed its safety record and said it was not fully aware of the driver's violations.

In a statement, the company said its copy of Tavares' driving record had "major discrepancies" with the information released publicly on Monday.

"Given the discrepancies between the information we received from the DMV and the information reported, we will be contacting the respective agencies tomorrow and we will provide any updated information," chief executive Cindy Brown said in a statement.

Brown said that its boats have safely transported 10 million passengers around the city since 1994.

"For 22 years, the people of Boston have accepted Boston Duck Tours as part of the community. We value this unique relationship and take safety very seriously," Brown said. "Safety has always been our number one priority."

Brown declined to address questions about whether the vehicles have blind spots.

"We're not going to get into specifics about how the [boat] is set up," Brown said in a phone interview. "We set the drivers up to give a safe tour. We obviously wouldn't be driving unless we thought it was safe."

Brown said that duck boat drivers must hold a Class B commercial drivers license with a passenger endorsement, a Boston police hackney sightseeing license, a Cambridge jitney license, and a US Coast Guard license. They must be trained in first aid and CPR. They also are enrolled in random drug testing program, she said.

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The company sponsors training that lasts eight to 10 weeks. The vehicles are inspected by the Coast Guard and the Department of Public Utilities, Brown said. State inspections of the company's fleet between March 2014 and March 2016 revealed no serious violations.

Tavares, whose age was redacted on his four-page driving record released by the state and whose hometown was not provided, had been a driver for the company for years, officials said. It did not appear that any of his violations occurred while on the job.

He was cited for speeding 10 times between 1995 and 2015, most recently in Stoughton in October.

The fatal crash occurred at about 11:30 a.m. Saturday when Warmuth and a male passenger pulled in front of a duck boat near the intersection of Beacon and Charles streets at a set of traffic lights.

When the light changed, the duck boat moved forward while Warmuth tried to accelerate away from the vehicle, witnesses said. People shouted for Tavares to stop, according to witnesses, but by the time he did it was too late. The passenger did not suffer serious injuries.

Boston police said they have not received any complaints about duck boats in the past two years but could not provide information before that time.

A spokeswoman for the city's transportation department said officials "haven't seen a significant safety issue with these types of vehicles vs. other vehicle types."

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But Furth, a Northeastern University traffic specialist, said that any large vehicle in which the driver sits up high would have massive blind spots.

"Driving a heavy vehicle with tall wheels and blind spots on urban streets is inherently dangerous," he said. "[The duck boats] need to be modified or have their way of operating modified so that they don't have those blind spots."

In Seattle, the city temporarily suspended all duck boat rides last year after five people were killed and 50 more were injured in a crash on a bridge.

John Scholbe, who represented victims in that case, said he believes the boats pose a significant safety problem.

"They are many things [drivers] have to do when they drive, particularly in a downtown, urban area," Scholbe said. Drivers "have to operate many hats while driving. They have to be a driver, they have to maintain eyes on the audience, and they have to be entertaining."

The company said over the weekend its vehicles had not been involved in any previous fatal accidents. But in 2006, Boston Duck Tours paid $425,000 to the estate of Rosemary Hamelburg of Boston to settle a wrongful death lawsuit.

Hamelburg died in 2003 when she fell backwards off a boat while taking a photo.

In the lawsuit, Hamelburg's family and lawyers alleged that duck boat operators contributed to the death by "failing to follow its own safety policies and procedures relating to the boarding and pre-departure process."

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The company's failure to acknowledge her death over the weekend infuriated her son, Stephen Hamelburg.

"The more I think about it, the more angry it makes me. For them to say they've never had an accident before is unconscionable," Hamelburg said. "It's heinous."

Because of what happened, Hamelburg said, he has never watched a parade following one of Boston's sports championships. The duck boats are a staple of the parades.

"Everything just comes rushing back," he said. "I just can't."

In 2003, Brown, then the company's general manager, said Boston Duck Tours would not change its procedures in response to Hamelburg's fatal fall. As part of the later settlement, the company did not acknowledge liability in the woman's death.

"There was nothing we could have done to stop that from happening," she said Monday. "It was very different from what happened on Saturday."

Six years later, five people were treated for minor injuries when a duck boat suffered a brake problem and crashed into several vehicles near Charles Circle. At the time, the general manager of the company called the crash a "freak mistake."

A duck boat made the turn from Charles Street onto Beacon Street — the intersection where a woman was killed on Saturday.
A duck boat made the turn from Charles Street onto Beacon Street — the intersection where a woman was killed on Saturday.(Suzanne Kreiter)

John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Jan Ransom can be reached atjan.ransom@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jan_Ransom. Astead W. Herndon can be reached at astead.herndon@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH.