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After Seattle duck boat fatalities, regulators took tough steps

A crash between a duck boat and a bus killed five people in Seattle on Sept. 24, 2015.Associated Press file

In September, when a horrific duck boat crash on a Seattle bridge left five people dead and more than 50 injured, Washington acted quickly.

Almost immediately, safety commissioners suspended operation of Ride the Ducks Seattle and began inspecting the “entire fleet of vehicles and drivers,” records show. Later, the commission pressured the company into using “paired” tours, so the driver does not also have to narrate.

And this week officials imposed a $308,000 penalty for negligence.

The circumstances of the horrific accident in Seattle were clear-cut — a maintenance lapse was uncovered — while those of last weekend’s duck boat fatality in Boston remain unclear.


Here, authorities are still investigating what caused the crash near Boston Common that killed 28-year-old Allison Warmuth, who was driving a scooter.

Officials have taken no action against Boston Duck Tours, whose tour driver had an extensive history of traffic violations.

“We are going to wait to see this investigation go through,” Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said this week. “And then we are going to look at what we can do as a city across the board.”

The Boston crash occurred Saturday at the intersection of Charles and Beacon streets. When the traffic light changed, the duck boat moved forward, while Warmuth — on the scooter in front of the duck boat — tried to accelerate away from the vehicle, witnesses said. People shouted for the duck boat driver to stop, according to witnesses, but the scooter was crushed under the driver’s-side front wheel.

Boston Duck Tours said it operates a fleet of vehicles that meet “all current Coast Guard and Department of Transportation regulations” and that safety has always been its “top priority.” The driver, who has been suspended, had an exemplary record, the company said.

State inspections of the company’s fleet between March 2014 and March 2016 revealed a single minor violation.


But critics say the duck boats used in Boston and Seattle, which are similarly shaped, have inherently dangerous blind spots that are ill suited for busy urban areas.

“It’s not good to have these on our city streets,” said Stephen Bulzomi, a longtime personal injury lawyer in Washington who represented a motorcyclist injured in a 2011 duck boat crash. “They are made for soldiers to invade countries.”

In the Seattle accident, the duck boat swerved across the median and into a charter bus because a faulty axle had not been properly repaired, even after a national warning, according to a report by the federal safety and transportation board.

Since the fatal crash, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has called for the company’s style of duck boats to be banned, but said he does not have the legal authority to do that. Murray and other city officials could not be reached for comment.

An audit conducted by Washington’s Utilities and Transportation Commission found that the Seattle company did not adequately test drivers for drugs and alcohol and did not do enough to communicate safety risks to customers, among other violations, officials said.

In total, Washington regulators found more than 400 violations in maintenance practices, including 159 considered “critical to protecting public safety.” City leaders also downgraded the company’s safety ratings, forcing it to hire additional staff members to supervise each tour.

“These violations taken as a whole reflect an insufficient approach to public safety that the commission cannot tolerate,” the commission said in a statement this week.


The company must submit to further investigation and vehicle inspections this summer and beyond to determine if it is complying with state and federal safety requirements, the commission said.

Seattle’s city councilors are also considering a measure that would require all tour guide companies to have separate drivers and entertainers.

Boston Duck Tour drivers speak to passengers as they drive, which critics say creates a dangerous distraction.

Bulzomi, the lawyer, said that “at the minimum” duck boats should be required to have two-person teams.

“If you’re going to have them on the street, you should have tour guides just operating the vehicle, and not just being an entertainer, as well,” Bulzomi said. “But personally, I think they’re unsuited to be on the street, and I think five dead people and 50 injured people is pretty good evidence of that.”

In the 2011 Seattle crash, the motorcyclist suffered a fractured pelvis, torn ligaments, and post-traumatic stress disorder when he was dragged an entire block by a duck boat, Bulzomi said. In a video released after the crash, the motorcyclist is shown sitting stationary at a red light before being bowled over by the large amphibious vehicle.

In response, the city pressured Ride the Ducks Seattle to install new cameras and mirrors to reduce blind spots, Bulzomi said.

The Globe contacted Ride the Duck companies in Philadelphia and Seattle and an umbrella company that owns franchises in Branson, Mo., Stone Mountain, Ga., Newport, Ky., and Guam. Each site did not respond or refused to comment on hiring practices and vehicle safety.


A representative of Super Duck Tours, another duck boat company in Boston, said it had no comment.

On its website, Super Duck Tours said its tours “are staffed by both a captain and a mate to provide more information and more attention to you our customer!”

Super Duck Tours also uses different vehicles than Boston Duck Tours that allow for greater driver visibility because of their shape.

On an 11 a.m. Super Duck tour Wednesday, two employees hailed their company’s fleet as providing the best — and safest — duck tours in town.

Jan Ransom of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Astead W. Herndon
can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH.