Seattle’s Ride The Ducks tours to remain suspended

Seattle duck boats - Ride the Ducks

”Ride the Ducks” amphibious tours in Seattle will remain suspended until at least January 2016. (Creative Commons photo by Joe Mabel)

Ride the Ducks amphibious tours in Seattle will remain suspended until at least January. That was the bottom line from an update about the ongoing investigation of the tour company involved in a deadly crash on Seattle’s Aurora Bridge.

The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission is one of multiple agencies scrutinizing the Ride the Ducks operation. In a briefing to the commission Tuesday, the state’s lead investigator said his team is still analyzing maintenance records and has another round of physical inspections to do before delivering a report next month.

An attorney for Ride the Ducks said they are fully cooperating and have no complaints about the progress of the probe. But attorney Pat Buchanan also wanted to convey to the state panel a sense of “urgency” about allowing inspected vehicles back on the road.

“We have 130 employees,” Buchanan said. “For the benefit of getting those 130 employees back to work again, urgency and time is just of the essence.”

Buchanan said whenever Duck tours resume in Seattle, the jobs of driver and tour guide will become two separate positions. The company is also redesigning its tour routes to avoid the Aurora Bridge.

WUTC Assistant Director of Transportation Safety Dave Pratt declined to go into any specifics about what the state investigation has uncovered or whether new safety measures might be imposed on Ride the Ducks. The tour operator will have an opportunity to contest any adverse findings.

In late September, Washington state regulators took emergency action to suspend Ride the Ducks’ operating permit in Seattle. This happened in the wake of the Sept. 24 collision in which a World War II-era Duck vehicle slammed into a charter bus carrying international students from North Seattle College to an orientation. Five students were killed and dozens of people in both vehicles suffered injuries.

Clipper Navigation, another Seattle-based passenger ferry and tourism company, recently wrote Washington Gov. Jay Inslee in support of rapid re-opening of the Ride the Ducks operation. Clipper Navigation’s CEO Merideth Tall said her company refers thousands of customers to Ride the Ducks.

“Every day Ride the Ducks is forced to close operations, it is increasing the likelihood that they may never reopen their doors again, due to loss of trained staff and revenue,” Tall wrote while acknowledging “the need to inspect the vehicles, its operation and the route.”

“Alaska Airlines, our ‘hometown’ airline, has suffered accidents in the past, even in spite of an extraordinary culture of safety,” she continued. “But they were allowed to continue operating.”

Coincidentally, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a preliminary report Tuesday about September’s deadly crash. The NTSB report summarizes an account of the accident given by the driver of the duck vehicle. The 54-year-old driver told investigators he heard “a loud ‘bang’ as his vehicle experienced a mechanical failure at the left front axle assembly, causing him to lose control.”

The NTSB report said metallurgical examination of the axle components along with other potential causal factors is ongoing. Both the state and federal probes are focusing on whether or how Ride the Ducks of Seattle completed an axle housing modification recommended by the manufacturer.

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