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Watch: An analysis of the 2015 Ride the Ducks tragedy on the Aurora Bridge

Nearly eight years after the Ride the Ducks tragedy on the Aurora Bridge, YouTube channel Brick Immortar recently released a detailed walkthrough of the event, including the history of the vehicles and details from the NTSB investigation’s report. It is tough to revisit the tragedy, but it’s important that we understand as a society how something like this could happen so that we can make sure it doesn’t happen again. It wasn’t just about a cracked axle housing on one vehicle. The axle crack was the result of a company that did not have an appropriate culture of safety, which is why these vehicles were responsible for a completely different kind of mass-death event just a few years later in Branson. If any priority other than safety takes precedent in a transportation operation, this is what can happen.

Thankfully, Ride the Ducks shut down in Seattle back in 2020, and good riddance. They never should have returned to Seattle’s roads and waterways after that horrible day in 2015 when a mechanical failure caused the amphibious vehicle’s driver to lose control and crash into the side of a tour bus filled with international students from North Seattle College. Because of the pointed and elevated front end of the DUKW, it sliced into the side of the bus at the same level as the passenger seats. Five people were killed on the bus and 69 others were injured among all vehicles involved, many very seriously. This single crash was responsible for 25% of all traffic fatalities on Seattle streets that year. September 24 will mark the 8th anniversary of this tragedy.

The legacy of the Seattle tragedy was made even worse when Federal lawmakers and regulators failed to ban these DUKW vehicles across the nation, leading to a 2018 disaster in Branson, Missouri, in which 17 people drowned when one of them sank. The company disregarded a weather report that should have scuttled the floating portion of the tour. They had also installed a canopy over the top of the passenger area, which prevented people from escaping when the vehicle began to sink. Passengers were also not required to wear life vests, and the vests on board were clearly not accessible quickly enough in the event the vehicle took on water. A series of lawsuits on behalf of victims were settled for undisclosed amounts, but the Missouri Attorney General has filed criminal charges against three employees. An effort to pass Federal legislation all but banning DUKW nationwide did not succeed, but negative press and major lawsuits have since closed all Ride the Ducks operations in the US (Boston Duck Tours, which uses different branding but similar vehicles, is still operational somehow).


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My blood boils every time I think about Ride the Ducks, and I followed the NTSB investigation as it unfolded as well as the civil trial in which a King County jury awarded victims $123 million, about 70% from Ride the Ducks International (the Branson-based vehicle manufacturer/modifier) and 30% from Ride the Ducks Seattle. Hopefully the size of that award not only helps the victims and their families, but also deters anyone from ever starting another company offering public DUKW tours in these inherently unsafe vehicles (tours using modern amphibious tour vehicles designed to current road and water safety standards may be viable, but these WWII vehicles should never enter a public road or waterway again).

The lessons from this story should reverberate throughout the transportation industry. As noted in the video (especially starting at 25:58), the abnormally high point of impact means the DUKW effectively bypassed the safety features of the tour bus, designed to protect against collisions with normal vehicle designs. The narrator referred to this as “vehicle mismatch or structural incompatibility.” We don’t often think of it in these terms, but vehicles are designed to collide with each other. Bumpers hit bumpers, and crumple zones hit crumple zones. When you have a vehicle with a point of contact three feet higher than normal, no other vehicle will be designed to handle such a collision. But DUKW vehicles are not the only things on our roads with abnormally high points of contact. What about lifted trucks? Or vehicles with various push bar modifications? These things have safety consequences, too, and we aren’t addressing them.

It’s instructive to compare this NTSB report to, say, an NTSB report about an airliner incident. In air travel reports, investigators will look for all possible causes and contributing factors, then levy necessary recommendations that affect every relevant airline, pilot, air traffic controller and maintenance department so that everyone takes the steps required to prevent a repeat incident. But we don’t do that on roads. Instead, the NTSB placed a bunch of requirements on two companies that no longer exist, leaving everyone else free to repeat similar mistakes over and over again.


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2 responses to “Watch: An analysis of the 2015 Ride the Ducks tragedy on the Aurora Bridge”

  1. bill

    Those things terrified me whether I was in a car or on a bike.

    I seem to recall a motorcyclist was killed by a DUKW at a traffic light. The driver stopped so close the rider was concealed by the high nose. The driver forgot the motorcycle was there and ran him over when the light turned green. Not sure if that was in Seattle or elsewhere.

    1. Skylar

      Me too. That incident you mention was in Seattle, back in 2012:

      https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/motorcyclist-hit-by-ride-the-ducks-vehicle-files-lawsuit/

      On top of the bad visibility and poor maintenance record, having a driver double as an entertainer was just pure greed on the part of the company.

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