Duck boats: Are they really unsafe?

A fatal crash in Seattle has brought duck boat tours to national attention, but the duck boats' safety record is better than most vehicles, including golf carts.

Charles Krupa/AP
New England Patriots Rob Gronkowski, right, hangs out of a duck boat as fans cheer during a parade in Boston. Duck boats operate in cities around the US, but their safety is being questioned after 4 fatalities in a duck boat crash in Seattle.

Fatalities on a Seattle duck boat tour have turned national attention to the unusual vehicle's safety, but government data indicates that more people die annually in golf carts than duck boats.

Still, the deaths of four international students from a crash with a bus Thursday have brought critics of the amphibious vehicles to the forefront, even though this is the first time the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has investigated a duck boat crash on land, according to the Associated Press. 

"They were created to invade a country from the water, not to carry tourists," Robert Mongeluzzi, a lawyer representing victims of a duck boat crash in Philadelphia, told the AP. "Duck boats are dangerous on the land and on the water."

Duck boats are a quirky tourist ride with a unique history. Built for sea-to-land invasions during World War II, nowadays the primary use is showing tourists in dozens of cities worldwide the sights from the streets and waterways for their respective cities.

When the Coast Guard, which is responsible for checking the safety of duck boats, investigated the 2010 crash in Philadelphia, they cleared the duck boat company there of any blame. The safety procedures Ride the Ducks had in place were sound, but the driver had been using a cell phone while driving, according to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board. 

Critics also say the duck boats should not be allowed on the streets because the duck boat tour guides cannot quack - duck tours are known for their fowl entertainment value - and drive at the same time, reports the AP.

"This is a business model that requires the driver to be a driver, tour guide and entertainer at the same time," Steve Bulzomi,  attorney for a motorcyclist who was run over in a duck boat accident in Seattle in 2011, told the AP.

Duck boats are not the only vehicles on the road that raise this criticism. The driver doubles as a tour guide on many land-only tour buses. Yet fewer than 14 fatalities occurred in tour buses in 2013, compared to 22 deaths from golf cart crashes that same year, according to the NTSB.

Duck boats may not be the biggest danger on Seattle streets, as the state of Washington reported 402 fatalities from motor vehicle accidents in 2013, none of which involved duck boats, according to the NTSB. More than 32,000 people died in crashes nationally that year, with roughly a third of the victims dying in passenger cars. 

"Thirty-three years we've been in this business, Ride the Ducks, and we've never had so much as a wet shoelace before this tragedy," Philadelphia's Ride the Ducks President Chris Herschend told CNN. 

A number of other US cities have had a fleet of duck boats for decades, including Branson, Mo., and San Francisco. Boston Duck Tours owns 28 vehicles and has not had a fatality in 21 years of operation, according to WCVB-TV. 

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Philadelphia Ride the Ducks president, and the location of the Branson franchise.]

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