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Duck Boats 101: Why they’re still on the road and the water, and who makes sure they’re safe

On May 8, a Ride the Ducks boat struck and killed a tourist from Texas during Friday evening rush hour. Elizabeth Karnicki, 68, was crossing the street against the light while reading a tablet.

This incident comes five years after an accident involving a duck boat on the Delaware River that killed two Hungarian tourists, who were 16 and 20 years old. It led to a $17 million lawsuit and criminal charges.

Are duck boat accidents normal? And how are these vehicles regulated? Billy Penn explores the duck boats in Philly and the problems they’ve had.

Have tours stopped?

Nope. Duck boats have still been going through town. They were suspended for a few months after the incident in 2010, but not this time.

Remind me: What exactly happened in 2010?

Smoke started coming out of the duck boat, and the boat’s captain anchored the boat in the middle of the Delaware, waiting for rescue. As the duck boat waited there, an 800-foot barge being pushed by a tugboat was headed down the river. The guy in charge of the tugboat and barge wasn’t paying attention to distress signals from the duck boat. He was on his laptop and phone concerned about an emergency with his son and even turned the ship’s radio down. The barge crashed into the duck boat, sinking it to the bottom of the Delaware and killing the Hungarian tourists, Dora Schwendter and Szabolcs Prem.

You can see video of the crash here.

So neither of these accidents were really the fault of the duck boat or its captain/driver?

That’s partially true. The woman who was hit by the vehicle last week was crossing the street against the light, and the driver is not facing charges.

In 2010, while the barge’s first mate was found to be at greater fault (and sentenced to a year in prison for involuntary manslaughter), Ride the Ducks still had to be pay for damages in a $17 million lawsuit won by the victims, and the boat’s captain failed to take a couple of precautions that might have prevented the two deaths. When the boat was stranded for more than 10 minutes on the Delaware, he didn’t have the passengers put on life jackets. He also didn’t sound the air horn, something he could have done because the engine was off. The air horn might have alerted the barge. Finally, smoke was coming out of the duck boat possibly because of a misplaced radiator cap.

Have major accidents occurred elsewhere with Duck Boats?

Not very often. These duck tours have existed in Philadelphia since 2003 but since the ’60s elsewhere. In that time period, the only other fatal accident involving a duck vehicle happened in 1999 near Hot Springs, Ark. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the Amtrak 188 crash, blamed the accident on a loose part that caused water to fill the vehicle, resulting from lax oversight by the Coast Guard and the Duck Boat company. Witnesses and passengers said the boat sank in what seemed like a minute or two. Thirteen people died.

Other nonfatal incidents: In 2000, a duck boat sank in Lake Michigan, but nobody died. In 2010 in Boston, about a week after the Philadelphia accident, a duck boat lost use of its brakes and hit several cars, injuring five. In 2011 in Seattle, a duck boat ran over and injured a motorcyclist who was stopped at a red light.

Minor accidents are more common, though. From 2006 through 2008, Ride the Ducks reported to the NTSB having a total of 32 accidents on Philadelphia’s roads that didn’t lead to any injuries. The NTSB has not kept track of any crash data since then.

Who regulates these things?

On the ground, it’s PennDOT. A PennDOT spokesperson told Billy Penn the ducks vehicles are classified as buses and subject to the same regulations and inspections as other vehicles in the medium and heavy trucks, buses and school buses class.

Once the vehicles reach the Delaware River, the Coast Guard regulates them. The Coast Guard inspects the vehicles every year. Drivers of duck vehicles must have a commercial driver’s license and a Coast Guard license. After the Arkansas accident, the NTSB ruled the Coast Guard’s oversight was not up to snuff and made a few recommendations that the Coast Guard chose not to implement.

I heard the driver who struck the woman with the duck boat was 72. How often are their driving skills tested?

Commercial driver’s licenses must be renewed every four years. The Coast Guard captain’s license requires renewal every five years. To get one in the first place, you need nearly a full year of previous experience on the water.    

Are the duck boats relics from WWII?

Not here in Philadelphia. Some duck boats used across the country date back to World War II — like the one in the Arkansas accident — but the Philadelphia vehicles, according to the company’s website, are “built from the ground up” and “resemble the WWII DUKW in appearance only.”

How does the size of a duck vehicle compare to other large vehicles on the road?

The size of a Philadelphia duck vehicle is not readily available, but a DUKW, the vehicle after which the Philadelphia ducks are modeled, is 31 feet long, eight feet wide and seven feet tall and weighs 13,000 pounds when empty.

PennDOT restricts tractor trailers to a length of 53 feet, a width of eight feet and to a height of 13.5 feet. Single-motor vehicles are restricted to a length of 40 feet and the same width and height restrictions.

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