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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
Attorney • (877) 377-7848

Duck Boats: Safe Fun or Unsafe Tourist Traps?

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One way to provide tourists with a unique view of a city’s landmarks from both the roadways and waterways is by taking a duck boat ride. These boats are termed after the DUKW, a vehicle first used in WWII. Although they are gangly on land and slow on the water, they reduced the time it took to move supplies from large cargo ships stationed off in deep water and unload them on land.

After a 1999 duck boat accident, in which 13 passengers were trapped and drowned due to being trapped by an overhead canopy, the National Transportation Safety Board stated that the duck boats:

“Pose unique and unresolved safety risks to the public, but that the vehicles could be made safe by installing safety features that would prevent them from sinking when flooded.

The NTS further concluded that the canopies present major safety risks because these boats cannot remain afloat when flooded. The recommendation was to provide amphibious vehicles with "reserve buoyancy," which could keep a vessel swamped with water afloat. Despite the strong recommendation that the design be modified to make duck boats, make such changes were not mandated.

The owners of Ride the Ducks (and surely others) obviously did not learn from the 1999 tragedy because on July 7, 2010, two more lives were taken after a tugboat pushed a barge into a duck boat on the Delaware River. After entering the water, the Ride the Ducks had a mechanical problem that left it adrift in the path of the barge. Reports state that minutes before the barge rammed into the duck boat, radio calls from the Ride the Ducks crew to the tug boat went unanswered. The duck boat capsized, the canopy caved in, and the boat sank to the bottom of the river. Two of the thirty-seven passengers and crew drowned. Again, we have another case where had safety standards been mandated rather than recommended, a tragedy could have been avoided. Can this industry finally learn appropriate safety lessons from this catastrophe?

It is unknown why the tug boat crew did not respond; what is known is that one of five crew members was asleep at the time. Whether he was on the clock or not is another unknown in this case. How could the captain and crew not know that a duck boat was in their path? Shouldn’t they be able to detect any disabled boats on the water with radar, even when their view is blocked?

Additional questions raised by this tragedy are: How often are duck boats inspected and maintained? Who controls safety plans? Should these vehicles be in the same open waters as larger vessels? Some of these vehicles are running on outdated technology and finding repair parts and experienced mechanics is difficult. While this tragedy was the fault of the barge, others have been the fault of the duck boats. As safety concerns keep surfacing, many are wondering if duck boats are safe fun or whether they have become unsafe tourist traps. Will the lawsuit filed by the parents of the two young adults who lost their lives on July 7 be enough to mandate change?

The National Transportation Safety Board recommends that until these vehicles are provided with reserve buoyancy, the canopies should be removed and all passengers be required to wear life jackets. Currently, duck boats are required to carry life vests, but passengers are not required to wear them. This is another rule that needs to be addressed. Other precautionary safety measures include carrying distress flares and completing a mechanical checklist before setting out to ensure the duck boat is operating properly. My position on these measures? A passenger can never be considered "too safe".

Mark Bello has thirty-three years experience as a trial lawyer and twelve years as an underwriter and situational analyst in the lawsuit funding industry. He is the owner and founder of Lawsuit Financial Corporation which helps provide legal financecash flow solutions and consulting when necessities of life litigation funding is needed while a plaintiff’s personal injury litigation is pending. Bello is a Justice Pac member of the American Association for Justice, Sustaining and Justice Pac member of the Michigan Association for Justice, Business Associate of the Florida, Tennessee, and Colorado Associations for Justice, a member of the American Bar Association, the State Bar of Michigan and the Injury Board.