On Tuesday the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) cited the probable cause of “mechanical failure and improper maintenance” after an investigation of the devastating Ride the Ducks accident that killed five people in Seattle in the summer of 2015. Another 69 people were injured. They also noted a lack of federal oversight that could have helped prevent the tragedy.
NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart spoke of other basic protections that were lacking on the amphibious passenger vehicle (APV), such as seat belts and “severely deformed” seats.
The vehicles have been a popular choice for sightseeing in many cities across the United States but “have been operating without any regulatory oversight when driven on our roads and highways,” said Hart.
The accident happened when the APV driver lost control of the vehicle after an axel suddenly broke. The vehicle crossed the center line on a 40 mph highway, crashed into a bus, killed five North Seattle College international students and damaged three other vehicles.
Ride the Ducks International, the company manufacturing the APV, received harsh criticism for failing to register as a manufacturer which could have provided missing oversight, perhaps preventing the crash. Ride the Ducks Seattle also came under fire in their failure to act upon a bulletin warning of plagued axel housings.
In addition to the NTASB recommending that all franchises immediately stop using the vehicles until all axle housings are repaired or replaced, they listed 10 additional safety protocols, such as passenger seat belts. However, it was noted that touring staff would need to make sure seatbelts are removed before the vehicle enters water.
A spokesman for Ride the Ducks Seattle, Mark Firmani, wanted to make clear that they had already implemented many voluntary changes since the accident.
He said that they had already stopped using the “stretch Duck” models, such as the one involved in the crash, and only use a newer, safer version that they refer to as the “Truck Duck”. Some other safety measures include a 360-degree live streaming video to company headquarters and a second crew member added to tours, allowing the driver to pay more attention to the road.
A lawyer for Ride the Ducks Seattle, Pat Buchanan, says that since the voluntary changes the Washington state Utilities and Transportation committee has now given them the highest safety rating available and that blame for the accident lies with the manufacturer.
“The report clearly concludes that Ride the Ducks International was a vehicle manufacturer, subject to very specific rules and regulations, including dramatically heightened responsibilities for warning operators of safety issues,” Buchanan said. “Had the company done its duty as prescribed by the regulations, we believe this tragic accident would never have occurred.”
The NTSB however, cited many events that led up to the crash which places blame on both companies.
“Our investigation found missing layers of safety oversight in the way that APVs are manufactured, determined to be safe for operation, and maintained,” he said.
He claimed that Ride the Ducks International has been aware of axle problems since 2004 and attempted a first “poorly executed” fix in 2005.
In 2013, they sent an “urgent service bulletin” in an attempt to alert operators to the axle housing issues. That notice was found in the Ride the Ducks Seattle office during the investigation, but the work was never completed. It was determined that Ride the Ducks Seattle lacked the proper protocols to ensure proper vehicle maintenance.
One of the crash victims, Katie Moody, 30, said “it felt like we lost control and he said ‘oh no’, and I looked up and saw the bus coming right at us. It was a really hard hit,” she told KIRO after the crash.
“I was thrown out. I must have blacked out or had my eyes closed. I remember waking up on the freeway and I saw people running towards us from their cars to check on us.” Her father was also ejected from the vehicle upon impact.
“This crash is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a manufacturer does not follow established rules about fixing safety defects,” said Hart.